Name: Eva Zhang
Hometown: Beijing, China
Majors: International Relations in the College and Business Analytics in Wharton with a minor in History of Art
Activities: President of the Assembly of International Students, member of Sigma Psi Zeta, member of Sphinx Senior Society, Oracle Senior Society
34th Street: What was it like growing up in Beijing? Was it a shock to come to Penn?
Eva Zhang: My family still lives there. I was born and raised in Beijing. I actually came to the US in high school, but a lot of international students come directly from their home country to college, which is a much bigger transition. It's even more dramatic. When I first came to the US, I think certainly there was a culture shock aspect, because people are much more direct and much more outgoing. Like, "Oh you're friends with your teacher." In East Asian culture, the teacher has much more years senior the same way your grandparents kind of are. I think those were aspects that I needed to navigate. There’s also this language aspect. This is a funny story. When I first came, I would say the snack Snickers and the shoe sneakers so similarly a lot of times that it would cause confusion with my friends and roommate, or poodle and puddle. I was just really glad that I had friends who didn't take any of those seriously. I think those are so small that people don't think about it, but it's so different. And every international student is different. If you speak English, that's different from someone who speaks English as a second language. In terms of coming to Penn, I think I was really lucky that on the social and cultural aspect I had already adjusted, and so it was more a transition from high school to college, similar to everyone's experiences in that transition. I went to school in Connecticut, and I lived in the dorms. I think it kind of prepared me for college being away from home. I have to do my own laundry, manage my own time. It's a lot of taking care of yourself.
Street: Do you get to go back home for break?
EZ: I go back every break, like Christmas and summer. I think I'm just really lucky that I have the opportunity to be able to travel back. Cost is one aspect, but I think more importantly with a lot of visa restrictions, a big proportion of the international population at Penn do not have the flexibility to travel out of the country. So how it works is that I have friends who are very affected by the visa bans, and when they came to Penn as freshmen, they had their visa and could travel in and out of the US. When the visa ban came out, I think that was 2017 or so, a lot of students could no longer go home because once they left the country they could no longer come back. You're at Penn, you're pursuing an Ivy League education, so the challenge you face is do you want to ever see your parents in the next four or five years, or do you want to complete your undergraduate education at a pretty prestigious university? That has been really hard on some of my friends, and the visa process itself is getting harder and harder. Many people have also gotten their visas denied. You have your acceptance from Penn in March and then you go on to apply for your visa over the summer in your home country, and then you get your visa denied. So they may have to wait for another year or something, but still you cannot come to Penn the year you want to come. It's a big disappointment.
Street: Why did you decide to come to Penn?
I came to Quaker Days, and I was just so sold. It was like two of the happiest days of my senior spring of high school. People that I met during Quaker days that were both so similar to me and yet diverse. Similar to me in the sense that everyone has an extremely strong passion, whether that’s computer science or nursing or marketing or neuroscience, and everyone is able to speak on their passions with so much depth. I found that similarity very reassuring. It's also diverse in the sense of backgrounds whether that's cultural, socioeconomic, academic, or anything. I really value the diversity at Penn in terms of the people and the resources that are being offered here. At the end of the day, that's why I chose Penn and that's what I found when I came here. I'm always so impressed with people here every day for four years. That's what I appreciate, that's what I expected, and that's what I got.
Street: What work have you done within the international community?
EZ: IAA is more focused on the international relations aspect. The committee that I was a part of did a lot of teaching international affairs and events to local students in the Philadelphia area. But for the Assembly of International Students, I just came to the GBM freshman year, and applied as freshman representative. I got on the board freshman year, and it's been my home base all four years. We’re having the board transition elections this Sunday [November 24th] so I am actually feeling a lot of emotion right now about finishing three and a half years of commitment to one single club. It's been a place that I made a lot of connections, where I learned a lot from different people and from different cultures, where I met a lot of mentors, and hopefully where people saw me as a mentor as well. On top of that, we are an affiliate group, so we have 29 affiliated cultural groups, so anywhere from the Hong Kong Student Association to Penn Nordic, which is one of the new affiliate groups. We're also doing advocacy a lot. We sit on UA steering, University Council, and we work with a number of University admin ranging from ISS to Penn Global to Admissions. We try to voice those opinions to University admin. Some of the things that I'm really proud that we are doing on the advocacy side, which is what I have focused on as president, is addressing the demand for programming during school breaks. A lot of students can't go home during break, whether that’s fall break, Thanksgiving break, or winter break. Last year, I created two Thanksgiving programs. One of them is asking professors or University administrators to host a couple of international students at their home for Thanksgiving dinner, because it might be the first time that that student is experiencing American Thanksgiving with the turkey and cranberry sauce and everything. We're continuing that this year. For winter break we also collaborate with Residential Services to offer winter housing to students who are unable or unwilling to travel home and stay on campus. A lot of buildings like the Quad or KCECH close over winter break, so Residential Services opens up Sansom West to students so they can have a place to stay for free over winter break.
Street: What would you like to see in the future in terms of international student advocacy?
EZ: There's still a lot of room for growth. I would like to see more celebration of international diversity and culture, which echoes why I came to Penn. It's for the diversity, it’s for the different aspects of the student body brings. Sometimes we always think that "Oh, Penn is such a bubble. Penn is so singular. Every Penn student looks kind of similar in the sense that we have the same personality." That’s obviously not true but it’s easy to come across that way. People tend to forget that there's such diversity among us and that's really where the value lies as a student club—to be able to celebrate that culture, working with admin, working with affiliates, and using the resources that we have to hold large–scale events or making people more aware of the diversity and cultural celebrations that we have at Penn.
Street: What was your first American Thanksgiving like?
EZ: I've been in the states for seven or eight years, but I think my first typical Thanksgiving was actually last year when I signed up for my own program. I went to Dr. Gadsden's home where she hosted another student and I. She had a really cute name tag for all the dishes, and I had all the typical American Thanksgiving food.
Street: What is one thing you're going to miss about Penn?
EZ: The people. Oh my God, I can't. I am so attached to my friends. I will miss walking down Locust and bumping into people that I haven't seen and catching up.
Street: There are two types of people at Penn…
EZ: Those who always have time, and those who never have time.
Street: And which one are you?
EZ: Oh, this is bad. It really depends. I try really, really hard to be the people that always have time.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.