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USC Sends Poor Message To Grieving Family With Botched Memorial Service

Heidi Carreon |
August 5, 2014 | 1:35 p.m. PDT


"I want to see this university that I am proud of choose transparency over reputation." (Richard Ha, Creative Commons)
"I want to see this university that I am proud of choose transparency over reputation." (Richard Ha, Creative Commons)
It seemed almost cliche that Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" softly played before Xinran Ji's memorial service on Friday, but it fit the mood as mourners took their seats. As I waited for the service to begin, I looked at a smiling picture of Ji on the stage. He was holding a degree in graduation robes, and it was painfully obvious that he was not at a USC commencement ceremony.

Though I never knew Ji, or know anyone who knew him, I still attended the memorial for one simple reason: Ji's family sacrificed much for his dreams, and he was close to achieving them. That, I believe, deserves some recognition.

On the surface, the service, which was conducted in both English and Mandarin, was fairly typical. School officials—Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni, Provost Elizabeth Garrett and Dean of Viterbi School of Engineering Yannis Yortsos—spoke of community support and referenced the Trojan Family several times. Deputy Consul General of the Los Angeles Chinese Consulate Lei Wang gave a few remarks, as did some of Ji's friends and family.

And yet, some, like current Viterbi student Andy Su were frustrated at the administration.

"I am truly disappointed in USC's handling of the memorial," he said.

For the record, each speaker—including school officials, Ji's friend, Xu Yuan, and Ji's uncle—paid respect by bowing to Ji's picture and then to his parents in the front row. They all expressed gratitude towards the USC Department of Public Safety and the Los Angeles Police Department, whose close cooperation enabled the quick arrest of those responsible for Ji's death. And Dean Yortos announced that a scholarship would be made in Ji's honor so that future graduate Viterbi students from China, Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong could pursue their dreams.

In spite of this, Ji deserved a much better service.

There is a note of ingenuity in all official university speeches. Perhaps it's the fault of the speaker, or the fault of the audience member, but there is usually a distance between the two parties due to a lack of emotional  connection.

School officials tried—and failed—to establish that connection. Dean Soni had a decent attempt by saying pithy phrases like, "We come together as the Trojan Family… today we form a circle around Xinran Ji, we form a circle around his family… to honor him, to mourn him, to celebrate him." While cliche phrases are cliche for a reason, they made the speech seem generic, as if the Dean was speaking from a eulogy template.

READ MORE: Friends On Xinran Ji: He Was 'Always Smiling,' 'Hard Working'

Dean Yortos attempted to connect to the memory of Ji by saying that "he, too, left his home in Greece to pursue the opportunities found in America." Out of the three school officials, he may have had the best attempt at a eulogy. However, too much of his lengthy speech was spent recounting his own journey as an international student. By the time he tried to explain that "we share the same experiences" in our interconnected world, I had tuned out about a quarter of his speech.

A strange moment of the memorial was when Provost Elizabeth Garrett took to the stage and announced that she was there as "acting president" because USC's actual president, C.L. Max Nikias, was away on "scheduled travel." A warning bell rang in my head, and it grew louder as Garrett uttered phrases like: "His professors tell me that he was a brilliant student," "He surely embodied the five traits of a Trojan: faithful, skillful, scholarly, courageous and ambitious," and "he inspires us to follow our own disputes."

As the Provost of thousands of students, it's perfectly understandable that Garrett received her information about Ji second-hand. But in that regard, the praise Garrett lent to Ji— that he was inspirational, that he was a "true Trojan," that he was on his way to becoming an innovator in his field—could be said about any of the tens of thousands of students who attend USC. Nothing specific was said about Ji, save for the fact that, "He was passionate about sports such as badminton and photography."

But the graver offense was Nikias's absence. Yuan, who personally knew Ji, said that especially with China's one-child policy, a family is shattered when the child dies. This situation is even more tragic because Ji's parents cannot have more children and so their family line ends with him. 

Nikias was available enough to give a comment on a late USC professor, so why couldn't he stop his travel plans to pay his respects? Unless Nikias was attending the service of a family member or visiting someone terminally-ill, the face of the USC should have been there, if not to attempt a better speech than Garrett, then at least to recognize that a family is now irreparably broken, and nothing can completely heal them.

Since the school officials did not personally know Ji, more time should have been allotted to those who did know him. Yuan, for instance, recounted moments of hanging out with his departed friend, and his memories triggered tears in many audience members, including me.

Even these touching moments, however, were lost in the antics of a poor Mandarin translator. She looked every bit the professional as she, with a badge clipped to her clothes, took her spot on the opposite side of the speakers. I don't understand Mandarin, but it was apparent that something was wrong when she began to stutter and take long pauses to translate just a few sentences.

At one point a student went up to her and said a few words. I asked my colleague Ashley Yang, who is fluent in Mandarin, what was going on.

"The translator doesn't know the Chinese pronunciation of his name," she said, "She's using simple words and she's leaving out whole phrases and sentences."

READ MORE: Trojan Family Members Gather In Remembrance Of Xinran Ji

Ji's parents not only had to secure visas, but also had to travel a very long—and very expensive—journey from northern China to the United States. After having to deal with travel issues and the fact that their son is dead, I imagine the last thing Ji's parents wanted was to listen to poor translations of the speeches and to someone mispronouncing their dead son's name. Because the administration is more than capable of providing a professional translator, I reached out to see if I could get an answer to what went wrong. At the time of this publishing, I have not received a response.

At this point, it is unclear whether the university will offer a refund in tuition costs for Ji's family, but a more valuable course of action would be for the university to take responsibility for what happened to Ji. 

It is true that the group who attacked Ji almost two weeks ago were on a robbing spree and were unaware of the security cameras around the USC area. It is also true that DPS was able to work with LAPD and catch the suspects rather quickly. 

But in the end, Ji was among many students living in USC's neighborhood. He was attacked in a normally quiet area that is guarded by security officials during the school year, and died from his wounds. In the face of potential drops in international student enrollment, the university called the attack "an isolated incident," and relegated all information about Ji, including coverage of his memorial service, to the bottom of the USC homepage.

Deputy Consul Wang and friends of Ji all expressed anger at the service over the fact that the attacks occurred at all. And, if this widely circulating petition is any indication, more students are calling on the university to be more responsible with student safety outside of campus.

"I want the university to admit its failure instead of sugarcoating it with statements such as this being an isolated incident where no one else is in danger," said Matthew Sia, an international student from the Philippines. "I want to see this university that I am proud of choose transparency over reputation."

Despite the unlikeliness that USC will do anything to change the way they handle tragedies such as Ji's, Yuan gave a promise to Ji's parents:

"Mr. and Mrs. Ji, at this moment we are all your children…we hope that we can do something to warm your heart."

The Trojan Family is a very real thing, and Ji's death brought Trojans together to honor a person who traveled far and worked hard for his achievements, and to give support to his friends and family.

But based on the poor handling of the memorial service, what an untimely death in the Trojan Family means to the administration is a PR campaign to stave off another lawsuit.

Contact Contributor Heidi Carreon here and follow her on Twitter here.



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