As I sit through several hours of Zoom classes in a row, trying to make the most of a senior year that seems quite far from what I had pictured it would be, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect. And to be grateful for some of the experiences that I perhaps took for granted prior to COVID-19.
About a year ago, I interned abroad in Shanghai, China, through the USC Global Fellows program, a university-wide initiative that places students in internships in a variety of industries in an Asian metropolis of their choice, to blend the experiences of a traditional study abroad with the more challenging pace of working a full-time job. Despite a year having passed, I can safely say that my time in Shanghai has been without a doubt one of my favorite memories of my entire USC experience – and to be honest, a big part of that was likely due to my initial skepticism of the program.
Growing up in Guangzhou, China, I felt disconnected from the excitement of ‘studying abroad’ (2 hours away from home by flight wasn’t exactly abroad for me) and at the same time, disappointed that I hadn’t secured that ‘prestigious’ summer internship at that high-level engineering company where all my peers appeared to be working. I had many friends tell me – ‘study abroad is a really cool alternative to a traditional engineering internship’ – but as an international student technically ‘studying abroad’ in the US, the words felt a little empty.
But then I got to Shanghai. And I experienced a summer of growth like never before – I made close friends, I worked at a startup for the first time, I fell in love with a new city, and I discovered a love for sustainability work. While I was in Shanghai I had the opportunity to intern at a company that worked on issues of air quality, and got to collaborate with company executives on both local projects with environmental health assessments, as well as an initiative to boost global air quality monitoring. This was the first time I had learned about environmental policies and action in such a hands-on setting, and it set the stage for an interest in a new field that I then spent all of junior year fostering through the classes I took – environmental politics, environmental law, and sustainable energy to name a few. The experience reminded me that most often, the opportunities that seem the most far out of the ordinary – the most ‘random’, so to say – can sometimes turn out to be the best ones for your personal growth.
Additionally, working in China and experiencing the differences in environmental policymaking between the world I see here in the US and the market I was involved with there has led me to become more interested in exploring that contradiction, with some of the research I am now conducting on campus (through the Political Science department) focusing on Chinese environmental policymaking in particular. If I’m being completely honest – and, not to be dramatic, but – living in Shanghai has also made me want to work towards a new professional goal: working at the intersection of climate or environmental policy and international relations, specifically between the US and China. How I go about doing that with an undergraduate degree in engineering, I haven’t quite figured out, but I have a feeling it involves being open to even more unusual or ‘random’ adventures along the way.