Last year, Ming Qu and Ying Wu set off on a well-trod path for success-seeking Chinese. They left their native country, enrolled at a prestigious American university and plowed toward degrees that could ensure them respect — and a better future — when they returned home.
The USC graduate students, focused intently on their electrical engineering program, hunkered down in a neighborhood just west of campus. It was quieter, a better atmosphere for studying, residents said. But it was also widely considered less safe.
That's where, in Wednesday's wee hours, Qu and Wu's immigrant tale ended tragically: with the students shot to death, a gunman on the lam and the university's Chinese community in mourning.
Chinese students comprise about one-third of USC's 7,200 international students, a number that has risen in recent years as the college wooed scholars from abroad. So many Chinese residents have flocked to U.S. colleges in recent years that the deaths of Qu and Wu made headlines in Beijing.
At USC, a number of Chinese students said they saw in Qu and Wu a reflection of themselves, one that went far beyond a shared homeland.
Until their deaths, Qu and Wu's lives bore many of the hallmarks of the Chinese experience at USC: where they lived, who they hung out with, how they spent their free time. They displayed traits their immigrant peers lauded: an enviable work ethic and a curiosity about their new home.
"They had each other to study hard," a woman named Julia, who said she was a friend of Qu's, told several hundred people in Chinese at a candlelight vigil for the victims. "They worked extremely hard to succeed in their studies so they could go back home and accomplish their dreams. They worked so hard in this country."
Wu and Qu, both 23, arrived at USC last spring. Wu was from northeastern Jilin province, and Qu from central Hunan province. Both received their undergraduate degrees in Beijing.
Once they started classes in spring 2011, they settled into a tight-knit group of about 100 fellow Chinese electrical engineering majors, friends said. They also threw themselves into their studies, said Sungwon Lee, a teaching assistant in one of Wu and Qu's lab classes.
"I knew both of them, they took the class together — one of the hardest classes in the master's program," he said. "They were working well, making good progress."
Wu also reached out to American students, even though English was her second language. Adam Bobrow, a recent theater graduate, got to know her during late nights at the library.
"I don't think she'd ever been to a nightclub, if you get what I mean," he said. "She's studious. Relatively quiet. Low-key, low-maintenance. Really friendly." Wu was open to learning more about her adopted city, as well, such as when Bobrow jokingly taught her gang signs.
Wu lived in the Adams-Normandie corridor, where working-class families are interspersed with students on tree-lined streets with wood-frame homes. The area is popular with students who have little taste for the keg parties and fraternity high jinks common on USC's north side.
"Plus, once Chinese students get together and live in one house in the western side, people come visit. Then more come and live there," said recent graduate Derek Zhou, 25, who's originally from Beijing.
The rent is also cheaper, a likely priority for Wu and Qu. Both shared rented rooms to keep down expenses, friends said.
But compared with USC's campus, which averaged 1.9 violent crimes a week during the last three months, Adams-Normandie is somewhat rougher, with 2.6 violent crimes a week, according to LAPD data. So the Chinese students looked out for each other, a sort of unofficial neighborhood watch.
Wu sometimes rode her bike to and from campus, about a mile away. "She's brave," said Frank Yin, an industrial systems engineering student. "I offered to drive her home earlier last month, but she said she'd bike."
Early Wednesday, however, Wu decided to catch a ride from the campus library with Qu. The two had become close friends, often chatting away evenings on Wu's front porch. Qu drove a 2003 BMW that friends said he bought for about $10,000.
About 1 a.m., Qu double-parked in front of Wu's house. While they talked, a shooter opened fire. Authorities found Wu crumpled in the passenger seat. Qu had collapsed on a nearby porch after apparently trying to sprint for help.
The news raced through Facebook and Renren, a Chinese-language social-networking site, so quickly that Ryan Wei, a 24-year-old from Shanxi, China, had to reassure worried friends. Also an electrical engineering graduate student who drives a BMW, Wei repeatedly answered his cell phone Wednesday by saying: "I'm alive."
Once Wu and Qu were identified, Chinese students who'd already bonded over navigating a foreign city quickly united in grief. They donned black clothes to honor the victims — a request distributed via social media — and blanched at Chinese reports that said Wu and Qu had been targeted for "showing off their wealth." Miffed friends rifled through Qu's insurance documents so they could rebut the rumors with the actual cost of his BMW.
As the sun set Wednesday, hundreds of students huddled near a statue of USC's mascot, Tommy Trojan, to mourn the slain students, a gathering thrown together by student groups that normally put on festive events.
"We gather here today for something we never thought we'd have to organize," Weinan Wang, president of the USC Chinese Scholars and Students Assn., told the vigil attendees.
The black-clad mourners bowed their heads. They clutched bouquets of white lilies. They arranged white votive prayer candles in the shape of a heart. And they wore stickers that read "May the victims rest in peace," in English and Chinese.
Times staff writer Barbara Demick in Beijing contributed to this report.