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He Proposed, and She Said “Yes!”

One never knows where love will bloom. For Kailing Chen (MS ’16), it all began in Room 181. That’s where she first laid eyes on her future husband, but of course, she didn’t know it then.

Chen, a first-year master’s student at the time, had come to Hilton College in search of a degree more suited for her outgoing personality. She already had a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Xiamen University in China, but was having second thoughts about her chosen field.

“I like to talk a lot, and I really like being around people,” Chen said. “In the chemistry lab, I only had test tubes to keep me company.”

So, Chen switched gears and moved to Houston, 8,000 miles away from home. She chose the city for its diversity, and Hilton College for its reputation. As fate would have it, she would meet Chandler Yu (MS ’15, Ph.D. ’18) in her Online Data Analysis class. 

“At first, Chandler was definitely quiet, and I wasn’t sure if he would be easy to talk to,” she said. “We were assigned to the same group project, and I thought we were complete opposites.”

Yu might have thought the same thing. He noticed her English was better than his, and he admired how open she was about sharing her feelings and opinions. He was also from China, and had come to Hilton College to continue his studies in food safety. He had only been in the States for a year after earning his bachelor’s degree in hotel and restaurant management from Sun Yat-Sen University.

He told her he came from Heilongjiang, China’s northernmost province. Winters in his hometown are long, with temperatures dropping as low as -24 degrees Fahrenheit. She told him she came from Fujian, a coastal province in the southeast that didn’t see as much snow. Although they came from opposite sides of the country, they connected with their shared heritage.

The more they worked together, the better they got to know each other. She began to see how funny he was, and was drawn to his intelligence. He wasn’t that quiet after all! She also saw how much he loved to help people. Learning how to analyze data can be confusing, and Yu had a way of teaching her and the others in their group how to make sense of everything. There was so much more to her new classmate than met the eye.

When the class ended, the two kept in touch and spent more time together. After all, they had mutual friends and saw each other as grad students in school. A year and a half later, Chen had earned her master’s degree, and was working as an event planner at Element Box, Inc., a company that specializes in restaurant technology. Yu had been accepted into the College’s new doctoral program as part of the first cohort. Things between them had taken a turn, and gotten serious.

“Being a Ph.D. student was so much more than I expected,” Yu said. “I would get overwhelmed and, at times, it felt like the program was crushing my life. I had to balance teaching, writing, surveys, research and exams. It  wasn’t always pleasant, and there were many times when I just wanted to give up.”

But Chen wouldn’t let him quit. When he was depressed, she stood strong, offering moral support and encouragement. A semester into his doctoral program, Yu suffered an injury to his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). The doctor ordered reconstructive surgery, which restricted him to a wheelchair and crutches for two months.

“Kailing took care of me every single day,” Yu said. “She drove me to the College, carried my things and helped push my wheelchair across campus. It was a hassle to lift that heavy wheelchair in and out of the car, but she did it. And she never complained.”

Yu’s studies only intensified during his second year, and Chen continued to stand by him. Her support never wavered. Her boyfriend wanted to marry her, and she had no idea.  

“With every challenge, Kailing would always find ways to make my life better,” Yu said. “No one else in this world has her strength, and she stood by me through the toughest times. There is no one I would rather have by my side.”

Yu enlisted his friends to help plan his proposal, including IT Manager Gautam Taneja, who would help him stream this momentous occasion live on Facebook. Yu also asked his friends and cohorts, Lindsey Lee and Yue Teng-Vaughan, to help him select the ring – a beautiful, classic diamond solitaire.

“Yue casually took me to a jewelry store one day – I had no suspicions we were shopping for me!” Chen said. “I thought she just wanted to look at rings for fun. Chandler was very busy and focused on his studies. I knew one day we would get engaged, but I didn’t think it was going to happen anytime soon.”

On May 8, just two days before he was set to walk the commencement stage for his doctorate, Yu was ready to put his proposal plan into action. That morning, he asked Chen to come to the College and help him proctor an exam in Room 181.

When she arrived, there was no one inside the classroom – all she found were balloons on the table. In fact, there was no class that day. Yu had concocted a story to get Chen to come to the place where they first met and where their love story began. He was on the other side of the building, watching Chen remotely through the livestream.

“I thought I had gone to the wrong place, and that someone must be celebrating a birthday,” Chen said. “Then, my favorite song started playing, and I turned to see a slideshow on the projector. It was showing pictures of me and Chandler that had been taken since we’d met, and he had added words to the slides that he had never spoken to me before. That’s when I started crying – and screaming!”

With that, it was Yu’s cue to enter the room and propose. He got on bended knee, and she said, “Yes!” A friend, hiding behind the curtain in the back of the room to make sure nothing would go wrong with the slideshow, rushed out cheering. A dozen other friends who had been watching the livestream from next door also burst into the room, showering the couple with congratulations and heart-felt hugs.

“I was so happy that my friends could also be there for this moment,” she said. “It was perfect.”

This August, Yu will defend his dissertation, then officially receive his Ph.D. in Hospitality Administration. He and his future bride will then return to China for their wedding and to begin their new life together. It will be a grand affair with multiple traditional ceremonies, and lots of red to signify luck and prosperity. Yu has also been offered a teaching position at his undergraduate alma mater, where he will pioneer public health research from a hospitality perspective.

Chen, on the other hand, hasn’t yet decided on her next career move. She’s open to the possibilities given her unique background in chemistry and hospitality.

“I’m very optimistic about my career, and I’m looking forward to change in my life,” she said. “The future is wide open, but first, we’ve got a wedding to plan!”

(Story: Pearl Cajoles | Photo: Courtesy of Chandler Yu)

Posted on July 20, 2018