Greater China Scholars share stories of innovation, transformation during pandemic

Author: Kayle Liao

Greater China Scholars at the University of Notre Dame have faced many challenges during the past year and a half. Due to the US government’s entry restrictions during the pandemic, nearly 40% of the Greater China Scholars (GCS) were not able to be present on campus for the 2020/21 academic year. The cohort of 38 scholars studied with Notre Dame, both in person and remotely, at Peking University, Southern University of Science and Technology, Nanjing University, and The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies. Zhian Yin ’22 and Yixian “Ashlee” Fu ’21 share their stories and reflections during this unusual time.

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Zhian Yin ‘22

Zhian Yin is a class of 2022 GCS scholar studying architecture. A native of Shanghai, China, Yin studied in Berlin, Rome, and Nanjing during his time at Notre Dame. For him, 2020 was a turbulent year when he had to move around and accommodate new environments constantly. He used this time to develop his interest in Buddhist philosophy and spent time with his family throughout the pandemic. As Notre Dame requires all architecture majors to study abroad in Rome for a year, Yin was studying Roman antiques in Rome when the COVID-19 outbreak began.

“I never thought COVID-19 would be as big as SARS when I first heard the news,” he recalls. “Three weeks later, half of Italy was in quarantine.”

The change happened so quickly that Yin was forced to make a difficult decision. Where should he go from Italy? Should he go home to China or return to campus at Notre Dame? The University provided the students in Rome with flight tickets and brought many of them back to Notre Dame. Yin flew back to the U.S from Italy and stayed in a house that the school provided him with three other international students. However, as the pandemic intensified in the U.S., Yin bought the last ticket home where he was quarantined for 14 days.

“I thought to myself that I would have no regrets if I die at that moment - I spent so much time with my family,” he says.

Zhian Yin In Reflection At Villa Pamphili In Rome Italy
Yin is pictured in Rome, Italy.

Yin appreciated the extra time spent with family. He stayed at home until June, when he left to study away locally at Nanjing University thanks to the opportunity that Notre Dame International provided. At Nanjing University, Yin gained exposure to architecture from an engineering perspective which is very different from Notre Dame.

At Notre Dame, he learned the aesthetics of architecture, but he was able to see architecture from the practical side at Nanjing University. The frequent relocating was exhausting for Yin and he was mentally lost throughout the pandemic. Luckily, he discovered his interest in German and Italian literature where he said he human emotions are common and prevalent across all ethnicities and languages. He took comfort from Hermann Hesse, a famous German poet’s poems.

“My existential isolation amidst the pandemic was eased through reading his poems,” he says. “I felt it related to my fellow humans through the emotions that we share and because all beings are equal.”

Finally coming back to campus in January 2021, Yin felt detached from the Notre Dame community and was eager to earn that familiarity back. He loves the architecture library on campus and was ready to embrace what the campus has to offer.

Looking back at his journey so far at Notre Dame, Yin is grateful for the GCS funding that allowed him to study abroad in Berlin his freshman year. He has grown to see many opportunities in life at Notre Dame. While at times he was confused about the decisions in life, he is now excited to explore what awaits him. In fall 2021, Yin hopes to take advantage of Notre Dame’s FTT department and take a class in stage design. In his free time, he is looking forward to learning more about Sanskrit and Tibetan culture. Yin is passionate about finding inner peace in his spiritual world and ultimately applying his philosophical thinking to life and beyond.

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Yixian “Ashlee” Fu ‘21

Ashlee Fu is a 2021 Notre Dame graduate majoring in Math and Music. She is currently an investment banking analyst at Deutsche Bank in New York City. In her senior year, Fu founded the Asian Business Society, the first Asian business club in Notre Dame’s history. 2020 was a year of challenges and opportunities for Fu.

Similar to all the international students, it was physically challenging for her because she didn’t know where to go when the University moved online. Everything started to become a question mark: flight tickets, visa status, family separation, etc. Additionally, she felt mentally isolated when she was confined to a small apartment in Syracuse.

“It was hard to feel like you are growing in any way that is substantial and I wasn’t doing much with all the time I had,” she says.

However, Fu was able to overcome the dire situation quickly and she challenged herself to grow in different ways. “I started scheduling my time to learn new things to grow,” she recalls. In the past year, Fu learned German, studied for the CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) exam, and helped build a website on musician entrepreneurship. Most importantly, Fu built a lasting asset for the Notre Dame community -- the Asian Business Society.

“I wanted to create a community after going through the recruiting process after my junior year where Asian students uplift each other for professional opportunities and growth,” she says. But bringing that vision to life was a real challenge for me.”

It wasn’t an easy journey to build a club from scratch and Fu tried every effort.

“When you have a vision, you try to bring that forward with people,” she says. “Without the people, you can’t really do it.”

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She felt lucky to receive support from all the club board members who met every day during the winter break in 2020. She dealt with time differences working with her team and rejections from faculty members who weren’t willing to be the supervisor for the club. However, Fu overcame the rejections by reaching out to more people. Through persistence and teamwork, Fu was able to lay the foundation for the Asian Business Society. She says she’s especially thankful for Miranda Ma from Notre Dame International, who provided advice for the club along the way.

“This is the first time in my life where I fully initiated and founded something and a scale of more than 100 people benefited from it,” she says.

The entrepreneurial experience provided Fu with invaluable life skills and taught her perseverance and persistence.

“Small decisions matter to the club because there are a thousand steps along the way,” she says.

She was glad that the club was making progress every day with the joint support from the board members.

“We never hit a point where I think the club could no longer move forward,” she recalls. The more you ask people for help, the more they offer you.”

Fu also discovered her hidden creativity throughout the pandemic to make the club activities more accessible for everyone in the community.

“Especially during the pandemic, you have to be really creative about how you do things,” she says. “We are creative about the incentives for our club members to join our meetings and more.”

Fu says she is blessed to have nourished meaningful relationships, even during the pandemic. She applied her learning in her financial math class to everyday life.

“Resilience should be something like in mathematical terms, where you should not only minimize the changes you see around you, but also embrace them and create extra value on top of them,” she comments. “And this is the biggest revelation from the pandemic that I can still apply to life after graduation. For me, resilience is about not losing any of my meaningful relationships.”

Overall, Fu is grateful for everything that took place during the pandemic. She is especially thankful for all the creative endeavors she started, which she would never have a chance to do otherwise. Fu enjoys the freedom and liberty that the pandemic provided her when it comes to self-exploration and reflections. She has some advice for the incoming GCS and Notre Dame underclassmen community.

“We are all pressured to find our designated path when we come to Notre Dame, but you see people having different paces in life, where some come to their paths later than others,” she says. “ I’ve come to find my purpose through discussions with professors, friends, and family. Look around and see who you admire and ask yourself why you admire them.”

Fu wants to eventually enter the field of impact investing where she could restructure the art business model and change how art is delivered through business. “I want to be a person who inspires and loves others,” she says. “ I want to cultivate meaningful relationships in life and be a force for good.”

Fu learned from her nonprofit volunteering experiences that meaningful relationships are invaluable, no matter how many people are involved.

“I hope to define my own values and have a good social impact,” she concludes.

Learn more about the Greater China Scholars Program.

Originally published by Kayle Liao at on July 08, 2021.