Class: Chancellor’s Honors 2019
Major: Chemical Engineering
Hometown: Knoxville, TN
Allowing oneself to be vulnerable isn’t an easy task. It’s filled with discomfort and ambiguity –something we usually try to avoid at all costs. However, it is in our most vulnerable situations that we are challenged to grow as individuals. During the summer of 2017, I had the distinct honor of studying Supply Chain Engineering at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China. That summer something about being with total strangers in a completely different culture allowed me to be at my most vulnerable. Five other Volunteers and I landed in Shanghai in the early days of July. Greeted by a wave of heat, humidity, and disorientation, our next month would be full of adventures, mistakes, learning, and, most importantly, lifelong memories.
At Zhejiang University, Dr. Mingzhou Jin, a member of UT’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and a graduate of ZJU, guided a class of thirty-three students (twenty-five Chinese and eight Tennessee Vols) through interactive group projects and enlightening discussions. Supply chain engineering was explored in a global context, and the course provided an arena for us to share our personal knowledge and experiences. We visited several manufacturing facilities on our trip, including a General Motors assembly plant, where we applied our classroom learning to the fast-paced economy around us. My classmates were ecstatic to see my use of the basic Mandarin I learned in high school since very few people in Hangzhou spoke English. Looking back, it is hard to think of a time that I have felt more welcomed by a group. From the top of Capitol Peak in the Yellow Mountains to the Forbidden City in Beijing, China’s unique geography and rich history served as a truly memorable setting for this challenging and rewarding experience. In the most difficult times, it was hard to do little more than laugh. There were times when our group mistakenly ate raw chicken from a street vendor, took wrong turns on hiking trails because we couldn’t read the signs, and barely made our bullet trains. However, through these challenges, we broadened our understanding of our new environment and strengthened our critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Individualism is a pillar of American culture and a central concept in our value system; as a result, the collectivist ideology found in China came as quite a shock. At first, the transition was difficult on top of jet-lag and language barriers. My fellow Volunteers can tell you I even lost my patience at times. Yet, as my time in China grew, I embraced the familial culture. Staying in the international dormitory helped me embrace this sense of community. In fact, I forged a fantastic friendship in a matter of days. The thought of a friendship between an Iranian Muslim and an American Christian may not make sense to a lot of folks due to the misconceptions and stereotypes of both cultures. However, in founding a shirtless watermelon club, zooming around the streets of Hangzhou on an electric bike, and having numerous late night conversations, I was able to grow a lasting friendship with someone culturally different from myself.
The Honors & Scholars Programs encourage us to challenge our current beliefs and understandings and to expand our perspectives by studying abroad. Our experiences abroad are a point of privilege, and we can and should share with others what we learn from those experiences. We are charged with starting sometimes difficult conversations and standing up for social justice whether we’re on campus or halfway around the world. Empathizing and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes (and culture) are crucial steps to a deeper understanding of yourself and the world around you. By encouraging study abroad, Honors & Scholars allows students like me to make a positive impact on the world.