Missing Pitt graduate student leaves no trace

Debra Erdley
| Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Qi Qin was having second thoughts about her education when the University of Pittsburgh recessed for the winter holidays last month.

The 24-year-old graduate student from China, who went by “Sherry,” came to Pittsburgh a year earlier on a student visa for a two-year graduate program in East Asian studies. Three semesters into her studies, she hadn't settled on a topic for her thesis, and time was running out.

Katherine Carlitz, Pitt's China studies coordinator and Qin's adviser, learned of the student's misgivings in an email she received when she returned from the holiday break.

“I was away over Christmas when she sent me an email saying, given her uncertainty, it would probably be best for her to withdraw. By the time I got back and sent her an email asking her to come in and talk about it, she had gone missing,” Carlitz said.

Her disappearance in a city 7,500 miles from her home in Shanghai on the eve of a blast of arctic weather and one day before the start of Pitt's spring semester has sparked concern here and abroad.

Pittsburgh police, who are handling the missing-persons case, say Qin was last seen about 8 p.m. Jan. 5 on a city bus in Oakland.

Where she went after that is a mystery. Calls to her cellphone go to voicemail, and the inbox is full.

“Many Pitt students knew her and liked her, and they come to us concerned about her,” Carlitz said.

Pittsburgh police Detective Jeff Abraham said friends alerted police to Qin's disappearance. City police are handling the investigation because the young woman lived in Squirrel Hill rather than on the Pitt campus. Pitt police and university officials are cooperating in the investigation, and officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement were alerted because Qin is here on a student visa.

Police believe she is in the United States because there have been no hits on her visa in a system that flags such activity at international airports and ports across the country.

Pitt spokesman Ken Service said the university posted fliers of the young woman around campus and posted her photo on a student Web portal. At Carnegie Mellon University, the school's Chinese Students and Scholars Association posted alerts on its media networks.

“We are very concerned about her,” said Yue Ma, president of the CMU group.

Police said Qin is 5 feet, 3 inches tall; weighs 115 pounds; and has black hair and brown eyes. She wears glasses.

She is a member of a growing community in which Chinese students represent the largest portion of about 10,000 international students studying at Pittsburgh-area colleges and universities. There are 1,500 Chinese students at Pitt and 1,400 just up Forbes Avenue at CMU.

Like Qin, most of them are graduate students hoping to secure a future for their families on the wings of a coveted American university degree.

“A U.S. credential is still considered prestigious. Our (graduates) get very good positions there,” Carlitz said.

Service said Pitt contacted Qin's parents in Shanghai through a Chinese- and English-speaking family friend.

She apparently made good on her intent to withdraw from Pitt. Service said Qin was not registered for any classes for the spring semester.

“No one had noticed that initially because registration had not closed by the time she was reported missing,” Service said.

Abraham said police followed a number of leads and checked surveillance cameras near areas where sightings were reported. They have no indication of where Qin might have gone or what happened to her.

Anyone with information about Qin is asked to call Pittsburgh police at 412-323-7141.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 .

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