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Once a Belle, always a Belle

Megan Doyle | Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The crowd that filed quietly into Regina Chapel on Tuesday filled the room with green – they wore bright green shirts and pinned small green ribbon to their tops.

They came to remember Saint Mary’s sophomore Ziqi Zhang. Zhang, 19, who died last week from injuries sustained in an accident between her bike and an SUV outside the entrance to the College on State Route 933.

Green was her favorite color. But even as they filled the chapel with green, they also filled the room with stories. During the service, faculty, staff and students from Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s stood one after another and shared their memories of an international student who had been their friend.

A resident of Regina Hall, Zhang was a dual-degree student majoring in mathematics at Saint Mary’s and taking engineering classes at Notre Dame. She was a resident of Jiangsu Province in China.

International student Ariane Umutoni met Zhang shortly after the two arrived at Saint Mary’s. She remembered Zhang as fearless while they discovered America together.

“I remember going to the beach with her in Michigan,” Umutoni said. “There were big stones. … She was like, ‘I want a picture there.’ I said, ‘That’s dangerous,’ and she said, ‘Let’s take a chance.’ I was so scared, but she wasn’t.

“That was Ziqi.”

Umotoni asked the Saint Mary’s community to come together as a family during a time of need and grief.

“We need you,” she said. “Some of us are far from home. You cannot imagine how my family is feeling to know that they have not seen me in so long and such a thing can happen. We need each and every one here.

“We’ll hold hands, mourn together, cry together, share memories and just be a family,” she said.

The stories from Zhang’s friends prompted both tears and laughter during the service.

Paige Edmonds was Zhang’s resident assistant during her freshman year. She joked about a resident she said was both curious and warm.

“She was one of those freshman that the questions you think you’re never gonna get asked as an RA, she asked them,” Edmonds said. “She was the type of resident who when you had a section event, would come knock on my door the next day and ask where everyone was. But she definitely challenged me to grow as a person. … Remember her smile.”

Saint Mary’s graduate Chen Chen recalled a story she heard about Zhang before the two had even met. A mutual friend brought Zhang to pick up the keys to her dorm room on her first day at Saint Mary’s, but when they went to open the door, they had some trouble with the lock.

“Ziqi just whipped out a toolkit … and started seriously working on trying to break into her room,” Chen said. “So I got really excited, and the first thing that came to my mind, I got to tell this story to Dr. Barstis, who is the engineering advisor, to let her know that we have a student who has the right engineering spirit. … That’s basically how she got to the engineering program.”

Other professors and friends recalled Zhang as constantly smiling and always willing to push her limits for new experiences. They talked about an excellent student newly fascinated by philosophy and dedicated to her studies. They remembered a girl excited to return home to China over winter break for the first time since she had left for college.

Notre Dame sophomore Christine Nie said she came from the same city as Zhang in China, but only met her after they came to South Bend. She remembered feeling at home hearing Zhang speak their first language with the same distinct accent as her family members and friends in China.

“I thought even though she couldn’t stay in this beautiful world, as a girl of the same age and of the same city and of similar background, I can live this life for her,” she said through tears.

Elaine Meyer-Lee, director of the Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership (CWIL), read an email from Zhang’s parents to Dr. Alice Yang, director for global education. Another Chinese-speaking professor had translated the letter.

“We lost our precious daughter,” they wrote. “She was our pride and joy. She longed for this wonder country of America, and we wish that she could have completed her studies, learned the sciences and humanities so that she could have played a worthy role in the betterment of the entire human race.”

College President Carol Ann Mooney also wore bright green as she addressed the crowd gathered in the chapel.

“Each of us has lost a sister,” Mooney said. “It is terribly difficult to lose a young person with so much talent and so much promise. Ziqi’s death leaves a hole in the Saint Mary’s community.”

Zhang’s family is working to obtain passports and visas to come to the United States, Mooney said. Donations to help the family with funeral and travel expenses may be sent to Karen Johnson, vice president of Student Affairs, in 175 Le Mans Hall. Checks should be payable to Saint Mary’s College and indicate in the memo line that the donation is for the Ziqi Zhang family.

“For her family, this is an unspeakable grief. … Our hearts break for her parents, her sister and her good friends and family in China,” Mooney said.

Student Affairs is also collecting notes for Zhang’s family at the same address. The notes will be translated and delivered to her family when they arrive in the United States.

“When they arrive on our campus, we will make every effort to let them know how valued Ziqi was, what a positive contribution to Saint Mary’s she was and that she had a home here.”