A group picture of AXS's Fall 2020 pledge class, including Shimin Zhang (second row, second from the left). (Photo courtesy of Zhang)

FRESHMAN FOCUS: Shimin Zhang, ’20, attends online classes at UC Berkeley accompanied by her newly adopted cat

Shimin Zhang, ’20, is majoring in chemical biology. She lives in Qingdao, China, and takes online classes at the University of California, Berkeley.

Q: Why did you decide to attend UC Berkeley? 

A: I decided to go to UC Berkeley because of its academics and reputation, as well as its diversity. Overall, I think it’s the best fit for me. 

Q: How has the pandemic affected your transition to college, generally?

A: For the first semester, I planned to stay in the United States and actually go to Berkeley, so I chose all of my classes based on the local time zone. However, since I went back to China in August 2020, a few weeks before school started, I ended up taking all those classes back home. Most of the classes were scattered around 11 p.m. to 11 a.m (in the Chinese time zone), so for me, the biggest struggle with transitioning was trying to take classes with the time difference.

Q: Why did you choose to go back to China? 

A: There are a couple of reasons. One of the reasons was the policy: if you are an international student and you don’t have any in-person classes, you can’t stay in the United States. I talked about it with my parents, and I just feel like that’s an impending risk of being deported in the middle of the semester. The other thing is that I found an internship opportunity back home, which would look pretty good on my resume as well as giving me experience in the medical field. And the third reason is that I get to keep a cat if I go back. 

Q: Did you get to keep a cat in the end? 

A: Yeah. His name is Merlin, which I got from “Merlin,” the TV series. Instead of buying from a breeder, I adopted him from a girl, who turned out to be an international student from UC Davis. We’re from the same system, so I thought that was kind of cool. She brought back her adopted cat from the United States, and she wanted to adopt another cat in China to be her cat’s buddy. But, it turned out that the newly adopted cat fought away too much with the other cat. So, she had to give him up for adoption again. And that’s how I found him. 

Shimin Zhang’s cat, Merlin. (Photo courtesy of Zhang)

Q: What are you majoring in and what classes did you take in the first semester? 

A: I am majoring in chemical biology. I chose my major already, so there isn’t much room for me to choose. Most of the time, I just went with the recommended schedule for my major. I took eight classes last semester, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. A lot of them were one-unit courses that don’t take up that much time.

Q: What’s your favorite class? 

A: My favorite class was probably one of the Berkeley Connect classes — Berkeley Connect in Philosophy. It’s not one of the required classes for my major. Actually, it’s kind of like a freshman seminar. Besides the lecture aspect, we focused more on the discussion part of the class, where I could connect with other students and the professor. We discussed a variety of topics regarding philosophy. Sometimes the professor would have us read a little excerpt about Greek philosophy, and we’ll just share our thoughts on it. Other times, we would just switch to something more lighthearted, such as chatting about our mid-term exams. It’s a good place to connect with others especially during this crazy pandemic time and I am currently overseas. 

Q: What’s your least favorite class? 

A: Math 53. I actually really liked its content, and my GSI (Graduate Student Instructor) was really helpful and patient. Most of the professors would provide international students with alternative exam times, except for this class. 

Additionally, the professors really did not like giving exceptions even for family emergencies. For example, one time, I had to travel to Beijing for a family emergency. Unfortunately, that happened to clash with my midterm for the class. I had a hard time because the professor did not really want to give any exceptions or alternative exam times at all. 

Q: Do you think it’s a good workload for you so far? 

A: It’s definitely more on the heavy side, but I think it was okay. I do feel like that a lot of the professors were trying to compensate for the fact that everything’s remote, so they assigned a lot more homework, compared to regular times, to make up for the lost time, even though we’re still watching lectures. 

Q: How was your second semester? 

A: My situation in the second semester is definitely a lot better than the last. Most of my classes are now scheduled from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., so that’s pretty manageable. 

Also, I noticed a major improvement in terms of course organization, so the classes in my second semester are a lot more accommodating for international students. Last semester, for most of my classes, I couldn’t really find a wide variety of accommodating discussion and lab times available, so I can only pick and choose from the leftover 20%. But for this semester, there are at least 40% of those times that are really suitable for international students. So, that’s a big difference. 

Q: Are you able to participate in any extracurricular activities? 

A: I joined a professional fraternity. I discovered it through their promotion on Facebook. I decided to try it out because it would be a new experience and a great bonding opportunity. I feel like since I’m overseas and it’s hard to find a sense of community during my first semester, so I thought that would be a good way to know people and be a part of a small group. Although there are a lot of different fraternities in Berkeley, a lot of the major ones are more focused on the social aspect of it. I chose this particular one because they focused on advancing their members’ careers and academics. I think that fits with my goals.

Q: Are you planning to go back to in-person classes in the future? 

A: Yeah, I am definitely planning on going back to in-person classes. My hopes are that I would be able to go back for the fall semester. 

Q: How has your experience in Country Day prepared you for college? 

A: From the classes that I took last semester, I feel like AP Chemistry and AP Physics really provided me with a good basis to understand the material in the college-level classes. 

Q: Any advice for class 2021? 

A: Don’t worry. You can do it! There will be one college that fits you! Be prepared to manage your own time in the summer. It might be a good idea for you to take some summer classes before you actually start your freshman year, so you could have an idea of the workload and expectations that you’re meant to meet. 

UC Berkeley
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— By Hermione Xian

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