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In Memoriam: Junyi 'Kyla' Chen

Campus community remembers international student who personified inquisitiveness

Junyi “Kyla” Chen, a University of Delaware student from China, passed away earlier this month. A freshman University studies student, she had earlier completed the English Language Institute Academic Transition Program on campus. She was 22.

Junyi 'Kayla' Chen
Junyi 'Kayla' Chen

“Our campus community is deeply saddened by this tragic news,” said Adam Cantley, dean of students. “We extend our sincere condolences to her family, friends and classmates. Ms. Chen, who went by the name of Kyla, was well regarded for her inquisitive and caring nature. This loss diminishes us all.”

Recalling Ms. Chen, Lauren Genova, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, said, “As an instructor I try my best to share the philosophy of any parent, coach or manager: to not choose favorites. But, it is impossible for Kyla to not be among my most treasured students to date. Her unbridled curiosity and zest for learning were equal parts inspiring and invigorating. Her light will continue to shine bright through the lives of all she has touched, and I will  be forever grateful for crossing paths with such a special soul.”

A promising student

Karen Asenavage, associate director and director of academic programs at the English Language Institute, wrote the following tribute to Ms. Chen.

The city of Hefei in Anhui province in China has long been recognized as a city of rich historical, political, economic and architectural and cultural heritage in southeastern China. It was in this city steeped in rich and stimulating life experiences that freshman Junyi Chen was born.

Her mother, pediatrician Dr. Jinlan Wu, recognized quite early her only child’s characteristic unique intelligence and varied interests in the natural world and people. Ms. Chen always demonstrated inquisitiveness, kindness to people and animals, care for the environment and exploring the world. Growing up she traveled to England, Indonesia and Germany. Dr. Wu says, ”She was a perfect child.”

Her mother tells the story of them leaving a hot pot restaurant with leftover food. Ms. Chen noticed a woman scavenging in trash cans. To respect the woman, Ms. Chen asked if the woman could do her a favor and take the leftover food. These same characteristics highlighted Ms. Chen’s time at the University of Delaware.

Ms. Chen fiercely loved her home country of China and, although she had been accepted at four high quality universities, she chose to travel again, this time to the United States. She arrived at the University of Delaware in fall 2021. Her mother says she chose UD because she loved the small-town atmosphere of Newark and the close proximity of nature. Ms. Chen began in the English Language Institute’s Academic Transitions (AT) Pathways program where she excelled In English, math and a variety of breadth courses. As many Chinese students do, she chose a name, Kyla, as her English name. It’s meaning -- beautiful, full of life, uplifting, inspiring and charming  - coupled with the meaning of her Chinese name --  meaning even and uniform -- describe her well.

Ms. Chen matriculated as a promising student full of life and hope from the AT program with a GPA of 3.83 to start UD in fall 2022.

ELI faculty member Scott Partridge remembers her as “…one of the most pleasantly inquisitive students I have ever taught; she never failed to have a focused, challenging query about a reading no matter how dense, dry or dull the text in question had proven.”

Other faculty and staff members echo these thoughts. Art history faculty member Emily Shartrand remembers how Ms. Chen always seemed genuinely engaged and how inquisitive she was. “She wouldn't hesitate to jump in and ask questions, which would ultimately allow me to deepen our discussion of both art and religion. That sort of curious and active mind is always appreciated in a student, especially when there is often apathy for the humanities as simply a credit to be fulfilled.”

Jill McCracken, one of her ELI tutors explains, “She not only possessed a sharp intelligence but was decidedly the most intellectually curious person I've ever encountered. She had to know the detailed hows and whys of any new constructs she experienced … the questions came fast and furiously, and the answers were as quickly devoured.”

Math faculty member Paul Canepa remembers, “She was a very responsible student who studied a lot and frequently had advanced questions to ask me. Many of the other students just wanted to get through math class as fast as possible and go home, but Kyla really wanted to learn concepts and the reasoning behind them.  She was one of the most diligent students I’ve ever had the privilege of teaching.”

Partridge also discovered her interest in animals and life sciences. “In our discussions she would tell me about her adventures following a fox, beaver and deer through the brambles behind her apartment.” In class, he said, “She had a way of interacting with her fellow students that was memorable and endearing with her unconventional viewpoints. She made classroom discussions wondrously invigorating, repeatedly bringing a smile to our faces.”

She was also extremely interested in community involvement on campus and actively participated. ELI faculty Leslie Connery recounted, “In addition to discussing course content, we would talk about ELI activities and involvement with the larger UD community … We would spend time discussing contents ranging from the Common Reader to nail polish. All of our interactions ended with smiles and happy laughter.”

Junyi Chen participates in karaoke
Actively involved in the campus community, Ms. Chen sings at the CGPS Friday Coffee House karaoke in September 2021. Photo by Callie Zimmerman.

Student Life Manager Rebecca Boyle remembers her participation in the American Host Partners Program (AHPP), which connects ELI students with American undergraduates for conversation and social activities. Ms. Chen also sang at the CGPS Friday Coffee Hour karaoke in September 2021. 

ELI faculty member and academic adviser Ross Fenske had the pleasure of working with Ms. Chen throughout her entire time in the ELI. He shared one of his fondest encounters with her that demonstrates not only her care and concern for others but also her sincerity. “She had noticed a stack of chairs blocking the entrance of her classroom. Most people would have simply walked around and ignored them, but not Junyi. She brought this to my attention and asked if I could help. Whether she recognized this as a fire hazard or just an obstacle, she felt that it was important, and it was. What touched me most was the way she expressed her gratitude. After putting her bag down, she came out and called my name. She stood straight and then giving a small little bow, looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Thank you.’ It was the smallest of gestures, but the impact was profound. Junyi expressed herself integrating both American and Chinese customs; not only was she sincerely grateful, but she did it in her own way. ” 

Ms. Chen’s mother always thought she might have selected biology as her major at UD. Jeremy Penna, an ELI tutor, provided a glimpse of why that might have been. “She'd jump from topic to topic in a way that didn't immediately make sense but which I later saw as reflecting a quick-witted enthusiasm for connections and analogies,” he said. “We'd start on art history and then jump to tonal vibrations and then to animal vivisection and then wind up, somehow, on the Canadian healthcare system. Anyone who has worked in education for any length of time will recognize those two tendencies (an inquisitiveness which is not satisfied with superficial answers and an imagination which is capable of broadest synthesis) to reflect a mind of the highest quality.”

A rare soul

Ms. Chen was an active member of the ELI family and the UD community she loved. McCracken noted, “It may be that none of us is capable of sufficiently valuing our differences; I don't believe Junyi knew how wonderfully made she was, how absolutely splendidly and beautifully different. I was enriched by knowing her and had great hopes for her future. The world has lost a rare soul.”

Asenavage concludes, “The world, her mother and family, the ELI and the University of Delaware have indeed lost not only a daughter and promising student but a rare soul who challenged us to be and do better."


For any student in need of support or assistance, the Division of Student Life provides a variety of resources.

Students can connect with the Center for Counseling and Student Development at 302-831-2141. The UD Helpline is available at 302-831-1001 at any time, night or day, for students feeling anxious, overwhelmed, depressed or otherwise in need of counseling.

In addition, staff members in the Office of the Dean of Students are available to assist any student who wishes to talk. Call 302-831-8939 to schedule an appointment.

For the international community of students and scholars, support is available from the Center for Global Prorams and Services and the English Language Institute.

Mental health support for UD benefitted employees is provided from ComPsych® GuidanceResources®. The link gives steps on how to access services or call 1-877-527-4742 for support.!