URBANA — During the trial of her murderer, Yingying Zhang’s family and friends described her as especially generous, donating her financial aid to less fortunate students and volunteer teaching at a poor school while in college.
With that giving spirit in mind, her family established an endowment Monday through the University of Illinois Foundation to help international students and their families in times of crisis.
“We have set up Yingying’s Fund because Yingying was always willing to help others when they were in need; we want to act in that spirit,” her fiancé, Xiaolin Hou, said in prepared remarks.
His remarks were read by Ms. Zhang’s brother, Xinyang Zhang, who teared up while reading them, and a translation was read by her family’s attorney, Steve Beckett.
Hou has returned to China to begin his career as a teacher, Chancellor Robert Jones said at a news conference Monday at the Illini Union.
He received his doctorate in environmental engineering from Peking University this summer and is teaching at an elementary school in the poor rural province of Gansu, Beckett said.
With funds raised through a GoFundMe campaign, Ms. Zhang’s family provided the lead $30,000 gift to Yingying’s Fund. As of Monday, more than more than 475 people have contributed an additional $27,000 to the campaign since it was announced earlier this month.
The fund will support existing services to help international students in emergencies and their families, UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said.
“We hope that no other family ever experiences the tragedy we endured,” Hou said. “However, we know there will be other international students and families facing hardship and loss when they are far away from home. It is our hope that this fund will offer some support and help when they are dealing with an accidental and urgent situation.”
“We hope that future international students and their families will be able to receive financial support and assistance when they encounter emergencies, so that they will not be as helpless as we felt when we first arrived in the United States,” Ms. Zhang’s father, Ronggao Zhang, said, according to a translation read by Kaler.
Ms. Zhang’s family described the confusion they felt after they learned she went missing.
“Our life turned upside down,” Ronggao Zhang said. “We didn’t even know how to get to Illinois. When we first arrived in Champaign, we didn’t know anyone, everything was challenging and overwhelming. We were scared.”
Hou described two years of “mounting problems.”
“Initially, we just thought Yingying was lost, her cell phone was out of power and she couldn’t find her way back to school,” he said. “Three days later, we learned that she was kidnapped. Almost a month later, we learned that she had been not only kidnapped but murdered. On the eve of the trial, we learned through prosecutors that she had not only been murdered, but been murdered in an extremely cruel manner.”
He said their pain continued during the trial, when they learned how she was kidnapped and killed, “but also now know that the criminal escaped the death penalty,” Hou said.
“Then after the trial, we learned that there was little chance that her body would be found,” he said. “Over and over, we have had to face mounting problems, and feel that we have gone step-by-step deeper into the abyss.”
Throughout this, Hou said they have been criticized online and “to some extent taken advantage by some.”
But they said the support they received has helped them carry on.
“We have never thought of giving up,” Hou said. “Our strength comes from our love for Yingying, and also from the continuous support and assistance of so many good and just friends”
And Ronggao Zhang said they were inundated with help.
“There were so many people from the university and local community who helped us, finding a place to stay, providing meals, arranging rides, offering legal and financial advice, all these complicated issues,” he said. “If it was not for the kindness of these individuals, I cannot imagine how we would have been able to face all these challenges.”
After the trial, Ms. Zhang’s family learned that her remains may be compacted in a landfill in Vermilion County and nearly impossible to find.
Despite this, Hou said her family plans to continue searching for her.
“Our greatest wish is always to find Yingying and bring her home,” he said. “Despite various difficulties and impossibilities, we will continue searching for her. I still believe that one day, we will find her.”