Family, friends, and community members gathered on Friday in a church in Savoy, Illinois, to commemorate Zhang Yingying, the Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois Ubrana-Champaign who was murdered two years ago.
Zhang’s parents and fiancee shared their memories with Zhang and the legacies left by her. They said she was kind, passionate, caring, and hardworking, in a memorial service held at First Baptist Church.
“My daughter was such a good and kind person. She was excellent in everything she did, and I never had to worry about her. Now she is gone,” said Zhang Ronggao, Zhang’s father, on behalf of her mother, Ye Lifeng.
In 2017, 26-year-old Zhang came to the university 236 kilometers south of Chicago as a visiting scholar and went missing in June. A former graduate student there, Brendt Christensen, was convicted of kidnapping and killing her and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole last month.
Zhang’s remains were never found. The family was informed weeks ago about possible whereabouts of her body, but finding her “may be impossible”, said her father in a news conference on Wednesday.
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“Every Mother’s Day and Chinese New Year, I would think of her. I miss her so much in pain and suffering,” said Ye.
Zhang was very thoughtful toward her parents, according to her father.
With her family from a rural part of China and not well-off, Zhang had depended on scholarships and financial aid.
However, she was always willing to yield those opportunities to people facing more stringent conditions.
Zhang was “always willing to help. Almost everyone who met her really likes her, and she has a lot of friends”, wrote her fiance Hou Xiaolin in his eulogy, which was read on Friday by Zhang’s younger brother.
“Our relationship was characterized by inspiring one another, mutual encouragement, acts of service, and continued support,” Hou said, and Zhang has made him a better person through their 8-year relationship, and continued to do so after she went missing.
“Yingying will always be the brightest star in my heart, whether living beside us on earth or shining in heaven forever,” he said.
The first in her family to attend to college, Zhang went to top Chinese universities Zhongshan University and Peking University, thanks to her hard work and determination from a very young age, according to the family.
The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has established a fund named after Zhang, honoring her by providing help to international students and their families. Zhang’s family made the initial donation, and the fund has raised over $47,000 in less than a week.
In his Friday speech, Zhang’s father specifically addressed international students. “We hope everyone takes care of the international students studying abroad. … Students, please be safe. The semester is starting and don’t let your parents worry about you,” he said.
The university has also created a memorial garden dedicated to Zhang near the spot where she was last spotted in 2018. On Friday after the public memorial service, the family left for a private ceremony in the garden. They placed several personal items inside a wooden box that was created by local Amish artisans and planned to bury the box there.
Despite the low chance of recovering Zhang’s remains, “Now our number one wish is still to find Yingying and bring her home,” said her father.