Sara Pequeño Credit: Jade Wilson

There was a killing last week at my alma mater. It was the second week of classes.

There were students who flew across oceans, over the heartland, and up the Atlantic. The majority of them drove in from across the state. All of them sought something: an education, salvation from their hometowns, or the great perhaps promised to them by the American Dream.

Thousands of them, mostly 18-to-22-year-olds, spent the afternoon locked in classrooms, frantically trying to keep in touch with the people who had just kissed their children goodbye. Schoolchildren in the surrounding town were doing the same. Instructors frantically searched for updates as the university, its people, and its buildings stayed silent and still, save for the area around the laboratory with a bullet hole in its window pane.

The hours spent hiding were what these students, almost exclusively Gen Z, have been training for their whole lives. We are the generation that Columbine bore, and whose unofficial end year coincided with the mass murder of kindergarteners at Sandy Hook Elementary School. They know not to expect anything to change.

We are the generation that has grown up practicing what to do if someone enters your school with a gun. We pulled our knees to our chests on the floor behind bookcases and under desks, perfecting the practice of making your body as small as possible. We were critiqued afterward, based on our ability to stay quiet. “If this was real you’d all be dead,” one of my teachers told a class after a drill.

We are the ones who were told what to do if we ever found ourselves in a classroom with a man holding a semiautomatic assault rifle. At age 13, a lockdown delayed the start of my eighth grade graduation. At 15, I learned through social media that covering yourself in another’s blood and playing dead could protect you after the initial carnage, lest the shooter return to finish the job.

A man walked into a laboratory at my alma mater and shot someone to death, and I wish I was able to grieve. I wish I could feel anything but dread, knowing how the rest of this plays out, knowing that people will forget, that even people in neighboring cities are going about their lives now. The college students didn’t even get the week off.

This lack of feeling would be more tolerable if I could channel the calm, half-joking demeanor of my high school teachers in rural North Carolina, who either owned guns or knew people who did. They remained stoic in our classrooms as alien school names cycled in and out of the cable news cycle. It would be more tolerable if I could accept any more “thoughts and prayers,” if I didn’t have to consider the racist conspiracy theories about the reason behind the killing—including from powerful Republicans in my home state.

The man charged in the killing was a physics PhD student. The dead, Dr. Zijie Yan, was his professor. 

Yan was described as a “beautiful person” with “a resting sweet face” in The News & Observer by the people who knew him. He was a Chinese immigrant who began learning English as a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he coauthored at least 17 papers. He had students working under him and was supposed to teach an undergraduate class this fall. He had two children and lived in a suburb between Chapel Hill and Raleigh. 

Yan came to this country for the same reason students come to UNC-Chapel Hill. In many ways, he was able to achieve the American Dream. His family will never be so lucky. His children will never be able to shake the way their lives were altered on the first day of school.

The rest of us are still stuck in the American Nightmare, the only way to describe the constant threat of violence fueled by too many guns and not enough mental health care. Carolina joins dozens of universities that have been changed forever by gun violence—and they aren’t even through the first month of classes.

Sara Pequeño is a former INDY staff writer and current freelance writer based
in New York City.

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