In this edition of International Humans of Brown, May Zhang from Guangzhou, China sat down with Lily Zhao ‘18 to share her experiences at Brown, thoughts on adjustments to American culture, and more. Read on to find out more about this BEO and Education concentrator as she discusses what she thinks of the Open Curriculum, what she wish she knew as a freshman, and her favorite classes at Brown!
Why did you choose to study what you study?
I think when I came in, okay this is a very long story. When I came in I didn’t really know what I wanted to study. I was really into cognitive science for a while in high school because I took an AP Psychology class and the teacher was really interesting and engaging with his class. But when I came here I realized I didn’t really want to do cognitive science because the introduction courses were really boring and the textbooks were really thick. I couldn’t really read into them, so I decided that wasn’t really something I wanted to do.
This might be one of the factors. I took a psychology and creativity class, it’s in the CLPS department. I got this opportunity to interview with Danny Warshay, which is a professor…it’s hard to say he’s technically under engineering department but he teaches a class on entrepreneurship which I didn’t take until junior year. But I interviewed with him, I really liked what he was saying, I started to get into entrepreneurship and I started taking courses in the engineering department about business cases and case studies and I really liked that. I think that was one of the…like starting to take these courses, getting exposed to them and understanding what they mean and why they matter to me, I think those are reasons why I started to get into BEO. And afterwards I started to think about whether I wanted to do BEO, or Economics, or APMA, APMA-Econ, and I think that the one single factor that drew me to BEO was that there are a lot of case study courses. So I think that was one major reason.
For Education Studies, I think took a FYS on Education, it’s something about empowering youth, so we did a few studies around Providence and going into the Providence nearby communities. We went to Fox Point but some of the other groups went into other nearby areas. And again I really liked the class, I liked understanding more about essentially the American society, which I didn’t know that much about, I mean I read a lot online and from the news but that’s very, you can say that these news are sometimes biased, because every country has their own agenda. I guess learning more about the American society in general it’s a combination of education as in human development studies and the policies and society around it. I think I learned a lot in the education department that I wouldn’t be able to get in another single concentration. I like the combination of things and the balance.
What languages do you speak?
I speak Chinese as in Mandarin, and Cantonese. I speak English obviously. I learned Spanish at Brown. So I took 110, which the intensive Spanish course. I ran through 600 in two years, so I finished that in sophomore year, but I can’t really speak that much now because I’m not really in class anymore and I don’t practice a lot with people. I did participate in a research study that engaged with Spanish and English speaking families in Rhode Island, so I did get to practice a little bit there, but still there wasn’t a lot of daily conversation in Spanish so I couldn’t practice and continue to improve on it. I also learnt Korean on my own, so I guess I’m kind of communicational. I can read but I can’t write well.
Why did you decide to study in the US?
In terms of why I didn’t continue studying in China I think it was because in China while you are in grade 11, you have to choose between humanities versus science. I didn’t really want to make that decision because I have always been a more balanced student. I didn’t want to choose one side and neglect another, which is what would happen if I choose and spend more than 70% of the time studying, if I did make that decision. I didn’t want to do that. Growing up I was always complaining about the Chinese education system and how they really make students less creative and less balanced, and I didn’t want to make that choice. There was an international department in my high school. I went there. It was an AP curriculum where students study with mainly U.S. teachers. We study in a completely Americanized curriculum. It was interesting because I learned a lot about critical thinking, not just for the sake of connecting to an American or foreign you know higher-ed environment, but also just for my sake, I think learning in that environment and learning more about these soft skills that matter to me, I think that really meant a lot to me and I really enjoyed that, versus studying in a more textbook based and exam focused environment. I guess when I went in I already knew that I’m going to the U.S. because that’s where 95% of the students went. I mean I could choose other countries but because of the curriculum I came to the U.S. I have some far away relatives in the U.S…maybe that affected where I got information in a sense. Another thing is that I think that compared to countries like, say UK, US has a more open curriculum. I’m not just referring to the Brown curriculum. I think in general US universities have a more open curriculum and let students choose and make decisions for their education. I consider that something that’s very meaningful to me as a person. I just want to make my own decisions in regards to what I study, and I don’t want to make rushed decisions that I am not sure of. I wasn’t sure when I was in high school what I want to do 10 years later, so I didn’t want to make that decision 10 years earlier.
How have your four years here been different from what you have expected?
I think that one of the biggest change or one of the biggest difference I didn’t expect was that a Brown education is much more than an academic education. It was a social education. It was many other things combined together. I didn’t expect…I guess when I was in high school and I was transitioning between these two phases, I didn’t realize how much college would be different from high school. I was thinking oh that’s just an extension of schooling, but in effect I think being surrounded by students from many different backgrounds, and learning in this place where a lot of discussions happen in class, I think I was able to get a lot of information that I wouldn’t be able to get if I was in a class of 200 people for example. So I learned a lot from my peers, I learned how to…I guess I just got a lot of non-academic related…like things about the society, things about politics, these kinds of things in general. One big change I didn’t expect was this learning about things that are non-academic, because whenever I go back home I would talk to my parents about these issues, they would say “I didn’t know you would know anything about that, where did you get that? You didn’t read the news.” I think that was one big thing I didn’t expect.
What did you find to be the most easiest and the most difficult to get used to?
One thing is in terms of within the classroom, I think it’s hard to get used to speaking so much in class, or being expected to speak so much. A lot of time you see class participation being graded, which is not common in a Chinese education system, or maybe at least in high school, I don’t know about college. I think that was one thing, getting over the self-consciousness to speak out loud in front of people, especially when there are people who are potentially older than you in class, or more experienced in a certain field, sometimes I feel less confident in this setting, so I think it was a challenge getting over that. Another thing is just American food, things that are more related to life and living here, also the coldness. The first year I was here there were some very big storms, so I thought it’s always going to be like that. This winter is not cold at all.
What food/dish do you miss from home?
Oh my gosh that is so hard to answer. I think there’s no one type of food I miss. I generally miss my mom’s cooking. I think that if you really want something badly, you can go out and find it to eat it. Like if I want dim sum, I can go to Boston, if I want hot pot I can go somewhere. It’s not finding a particular type of food, it’s not having that familiar environment where you constantly eat those kinds of food that I miss. Right now I live in Machado, I’ve been living there for more than 2.5 years now and I cook a lot. I cook a lot especially this semester, since I don’t have so many pressing homework and stuff like that, so I spend a lot of time cooking this semester. I enjoy doing it because I think it’s a way to relax myself from all the schoolwork, because when you are cooking you don’t have to think about anything else or else you will burn or cut yourself. Since I can cook for myself I can make decisions in terms of what I eat, I can cook dishes from my home, and it wasn’t that bad anymore. It was the initial adjusting that was kind of hard.
What is an Americanism you have picked up in the past four years?
This is what I realized when I went back home, not when I’m here. Scenario, I live in Machado, when I’m downstairs and someone’s walking in front of me, since I don’t want to swipe my card I will rush over and try to hold the door, and the other person will hold the door for me, and then you will say “Thank you” right? So that’s a normal and I guess polite thing to do. But once I went back home I realized that when you hold the door for other people they don’t necessarily say thank you, and that offended me a little because I got used to…like why aren’t you saying it? So I think that’s one really small gesture that’s just polite and normal here but sometimes people don’t consider it necessary, because they sometimes don’t think it’s a good thing to speak to strangers in general. Also when you’re holding the elevator door for other people you say thank you but that’s not always the case when I went back home, which was a reverse culture shock for me in a sense.
What do you wish you knew as an incoming freshman?
I wish I knew the importance of making good friends in freshman year because a lot of friends I have now are from freshman year and I wish I had spent less time on studying and more time on social life back then. It would make my life so much easier, so that was one thing. I had a Meiklejohn, he told me, I did not listen. He told me not to take courses so seriously in freshman year, I didn’t listen, I thought I could handle it. I could handle it but it didn’t end well for my social life, so I think that’s one thing I wish I could have changed.
How has living here changed how you act/interact at home?
I think I started to think about things more critically. Some thoughts I used to have are oh these are some of the good things in my home culture and these are some of the bad things, but I wouldn’t think about why that was the case. What were the causes? I think now I’m able to think more critically about what cause certain things, also about whose perspective, and who’s speaking, and who’s making those judgments. I think that it was easier for me to make judgments because they didn’t really need to be evidenced by something back then, when I wasn’t in college or before coming to the U.S. Maybe it’s because of the Brown education, I started to think about why certain things were formed, and what are some of the causes and who made the judgments if that makes sense.
What is one thing you are going to miss about Brown? Best memory?
I’m going to miss so many things. This is really hard because I have a lot. This also goes back to what I wish I knew in freshman year, that question. I didn’t know there were a lot of resources here at Brown. This semester I’m taking design studio for example, and I got exposed to this huge design community on campus, right in Barus and Holley. Even though I’ve taken countless classes there, I never realized there…I realized there’s a Brown design workshop, I never realized how people could get access to it. There are so many fabulous tools right there. It was so close to me, I never realized that. Also, library resources, I realized in my capstone last semester. There were a lot of data in our library that we could get access to. It was extremely easy for you to get certain information if you know how to search for it. I guess my limited experience with English classes at Brown didn’t prepare me well for understanding there’s this huge amount of resources at there. Also the gym. Nelson. There were so many interesting group fitness classes there. I didn’t realize that until this semester. I’m a second semester senior, I should have known these things a lot of earlier. I wish I knew all of that before so I can make better use of them. So what I’m going to miss the most is all of these resources and things I didn’t get to appreciate until later in my Brown experience, but I’m really going to miss all of these.
That’s a great answer. You’ll miss all of the things that you didn’t know about earlier.
Yeah, that is so sad though. I guess because for things I have done and have used frequently, I don’t miss them because I feel like I already took full advantage of them. But there are things I regret not doing earlier, and these are resources I will be losing really soon, so I think since I didn’t make good use of them sooner, I will be missing them more in some sense.
What is your favorite spot in Providence?
It really depends on what I’m doing. Currently, it’s Brown design workshop. I love the space because there’s so many cool stuff in there. People are always working on their projects, so you can see their creative minds spinning right there in the room. I like the 3D printing and laser cutting machines. I’ve been making some souvenirs for myself. So that’s definitely a place I really like, one of my favorite spots this semester.
Actually, in the downtown area, I was involved in this summer internship that was engaging with the Preservation Society in general. It’s called Doors Open RI, so I was working with a non-profit organization. They hosted this open door activity the whole day one day in the early fall. It was really fun because I was able to work with many of the, like there are people who are working say in the City Hall, working in the State House, working in nearby churches, things of that nature. It’s really interesting to talk to them, open their doors and see what’s inside. I think that was one really interesting experience. I wouldn’t say there’s one favorite spot for me but I think these are really interesting places that I would really recommend to people. They hold open hours weekly, or maybe even more often than that. If you have the time, definitely go to see one of them, or more than one of them.
What is your favorite Blue Room pastry?
Chocolate croissant. That’s what I order most of the time. I worked there for one semester. Also the sandwiches, if you know what to make, it’s really good.
You are asking the hardest question. Can I mention two?
I have one class that I’m taking, TAPS220, or Persuasive Communication. It’s a fascinating class. I really wish I had taken it sooner, but even if I wanted to it would be really hard to get onto the waitlist earlier. I loved it because I learned so many really practical public speaking and communication skills in general in that class. I got aware of many of the bad habits I have in speaking and I’m trying to work on that. I’m getting better, it still takes time.
The other one is, I think it’s called the Entrepreneurial Process, I don’t remember the full name, it’s ENGN1010. There are a couple of professors who are teaching it. I took Danny Warshay’s class. I loved it. That was not my first case study class, but that was the most effective one. I think after Danny’s class, you got used to how to think regarding case studies, and you know how to read those cases and make your own judgment, make your own analysis. And after all of that, it doesn’t matter what kind of cases are thrown at you, you know how to start thinking, you won’t be caught completely off guard, and I think that’s just a really good way…if you’re interested in business at all, I think that’s a really good way to get a first-hand experiencing. It’s really challenging, it takes a lot of time, but it’s 100% worth it.
Advice for younger students? Younger self?
Definitely take advantage of the open curriculum. I didn’t take full advantage of it until later. Especially this year since I don’t have any concentration requirements I really am taking courses that helps with bridging my college and work gap. I’m taking a communication related class, I’m taking one that helps with my creativity side and building things, which I love. I didn’t realize how much I like doing that, making things with your hands, it’s really…you feel a huge sense of accomplishments. Also CS, I didn’t care to think about that at all until senior year. I took CS15 last semester. It was fun. I loved Tetris, that was my favorite project of the entire semester. I also made really detailed designs with regards to its coloring and all that. General advice is take advantage of it earlier, don’t think about concentrations that early…I just want them to explore more. Out of the 8 courses I took my first year I think 7 of them are different departments, which is amazing. I think if I had taken CS15 earlier, I might have changed my concentration. I mean I don’t regret my decision, I like what I’m doing a lot. I just, if I had taken that earlier, maybe what I liked would have changed, or maybe my whole mindset would have changed.