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'Truly missed and forever remembered': UNC mourns Zijie Yan at candlelight vigil

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UNC students hold up lit candles and cell phone flashlights in honor of Zijie Yan during the candlelight vigil in the Dean E. Smith Center on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023.

Students, faculty, staff and community members picked up Carolina Blue ribbons and candles as they filled the Dean E. Smith Center on Wednesday night. Some were tearful, embracing each other. All were quiet.

About 5,000 people gathered in the Smith Center to remember Zijie Yan, an associate professor in the UNC Department of Applied Physical Sciences, who was killed in Monday's shooting on campus.

UNC students hold up lit candles and cell phone flashlights in honor of Zijie Yan during the candlelight vigil in the Dean E. Smith Center on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023.

"Dr. Yan left this world a better place for his brilliance, his commitment and the lives that he affected," Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said during the vigil. "That's a life well-lived, and a life ended far, far too soon."

Yan had been at UNC since 2019, Guskiewicz said, and worked under Theo Dingemans, the chair of the UNC Department of Applied Physical Sciences, who also spoke at the vigil.

"He would want us to keep doing research here at Carolina that will change the world, that is exactly what we're going to do," Dingemans said. "We will dearly miss him."

UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz speaks to over 5,000 attendees during the candlelight vigil for Zijie Yan in the Dean Smith Center on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023.

Yan's research focused on optical material — specifically on a method called optical tweezers. He led his own research group at UNC. Before his time at UNC, he was a professor at Clarkson University, and completed his Ph.D. at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

His mother, wife and children attended the vigil. Guskiewicz thanked them and honored the professor with a moment of silence.

"Dr. Yan was also a loving son," he said. "He was a father to two young children, his loss will be deeply felt by all those who knew him and loved him." 

Jim White, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, urged members of the UNC community to check in with their friends, colleagues and themselves during this time.

"Someone who said they felt fine when you ask them on Monday evening, may be feeling much lower today as the realization of what they've gone through finally kicks in," he said.

Christopher Everett, UNC student body president, speaks to a crowd of over 5,000 attendees during the candlelight vigil for Zijie Yan in the Dean E. Smith Center on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023.

Christopher Everett, the student body president, said he — like many UNC students — experienced Monday's three-hour-long lockdown in a classroom.

"This senseless act of violence that we experienced this past week, has left us all struggling to find a way to pick up the pieces," Everett said. "What I do know, however, is that we can pick up those pieces together."

He said he had never seen a community come together like the University did on Monday — with students and instructors alike holding doors shut for each other and checking in on one another.

"I've heard stories of faculty and staff pointing students to safety inside buildings and inside rooms, of putting themselves in possible danger to protect others," White said.

Though Guskiewicz, Dingemans and White shared words about the communal grief and trauma on campus, Guskiewicz said now, the University must find a way to move forward.

"How do we move forward with our lives and feel so fragile and out of control?" Guskiewicz said. "The answer to that question comes from our community, it comes from the countless acts of kindness and bravery that we have witnessed."

Everett said that though there are no words to ease the pain of Yan's death, he hopes Yan's family will remember how loved he was by the University community.

"Professor Yan, your presence on this campus will be truly missed and forever remembered," Everett said. "Our Carolina Blue skies will always be a reminder of you."

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UNC's chief diversity officer Leah Cox speaks to over 5,000 attendees at the candlelight vigil for Zijie Yan in the Dean E. Smith Center on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023.


Leah Cox, the vice provost of equity and inclusion and UNC's chief diversity officer, instructed attendees who picked up candles to light them, and others to light their phone cameras as UNC a cappella groups sang the first half of Hark the Sound.

After the song ended, attendees lingered in silence — then slowly left the Smith Center.

The Clef Hangers and the Loreleis sing Hark the Sound in honor of Zijie Yan during the candlelight vigil in the Dean E. Smith Center on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023.


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@dailytarheel | university@dailytarheel.com


Walker Livingston

Walker Livingston is the 2024 enterprise managing editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as summer city & state editor and assistant city & state editor. Walker is a sophomore pursuing a double major in journalism and media and American studies, with a minor in data science.