Tragic shooting unfolds on UNC’s campus

North Carolina’s state law enforcement officers responded immediately to reports of gunshots being fired at Caudill Labs located on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s campus. // Photo courtesy of Associated Press

The chimes of bells were heard throughout a moment of silence across the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023, at 1:02 p.m. to commemorate the victim of a fatal shooting. 

Just two days prior, at that exact time on Monday, Aug. 28, 2023, Zijie Yan, an associate professor in the Department of Applied Physical Science at the university, was shot and killed during a shooting just a week after classes commenced for the fall semester. The gunman, Tailei Qi, 34, was arrested in a residential neighborhood by Chapel Hill police two hours after the attack. 

Qi is being charged with first-degree murder and possession of a firearm on educational property and is being held without bail. He is set to appear again in court on Sept. 18, 2023. 

It is now known that the attacker and victim knew each other, as Qi was a graduate student in Yan’s research group. In a press conference, Chapel Hill Police Chief Brian James confirmed that Qi went directly searching for Yan, but there was no definitive motive. The firearm used by Qi still has not been recovered. 

“We continue a thorough search for the firearm and any additional evidence,” said James.

After reports of shots fired at Caudill Labs, a building at the heart of campus, police put the UNC campus under lockdown at around 1 p.m.  

Students and faculty remained silently hidden across campus until 4:15 p.m. when the lockdown ended and  remained confused about the events occurring on campus from receiving inaccurate information from news sources. 

“We heard that there were multiple people,” said Christina Polge, a second-year English and Journalism student at UNC. “One was dressed as a cop, they were going to different buildings, etc. etc. [We heard] just a ton of information all at once, and we weren’t sure if the dining hall was secure, and everyone kept talking about it.”

Students anxiously awaited official university updates, listened to police scanners and updated friends and family. 

“Mainly I just wanted to know the truth, but also that my loved ones on campus were ok,” said Polge. 

This fear is a shared experience among college students. The threat of gun violence has only grown on college campuses, which usually act as a haven for young adults seeking higher education. Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun violence prevention organization, has tracked 244 incidents of gun violence on college campuses between 2013 and 2021.  

Michael Polak, Professor of Practice from the School of Public Policy, teaches POL 1101 and POL 2101, which are introductory public policy classes. 

Through his 1101 class, Polak works largely with first-year and international students and recently discussed the state of gun violence and legislation in
the United States. 

“The biggest impact I’ve seen comes from my international students that come from countries where gun ownership is not prevalent. The potential that classmates could be carrying guns as well stresses them out,” said Polak. 

Polak says that in a poll taken at the end of his class discussion on Sept. 5, 2023, 87% of his students supported more gun control in various forms, such as stricter background checks, waiting periods and mandatory training. 

“My students found that by talking about their views and working together, they found that they had more common views than differences. The problem is that politicians don’t do this,” said Polak. 

In May of 2023, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld a ruling from 2017 that made it legal to carry firearms, including concealed firearms, on Georgia’s college campuses. Tech’s students are no strangers to gun violence near the Institute. 

Just weeks ago, a homicide occurred early in the morning just a block away from Tech Square and near many off-campus student apartments.

Many students across Tech’s urban campus feel that they have been desensitized to gun violence, with several citing it is common to hear about incidents or receive alerts of danger. 

“I try to remind myself that this isn’t how it should be,” said Nicole Frey, a fourth-year BMED student at the Institute, “but every day there’s an incident and there’s the reminder that no matter how much you’d like things to change, it just becomes a part of your reality.”