If you visit the LinkedIn page of graduating senior Kevin (Zijia) Ke, you’ll see several mottos, two of which are “never give up” and “stay positive.” Such optimism no doubt helped the computer science major progress from being an undeclared freshman who spoke very little English in 2014 to being a senior who finished his coursework in Winter 2018, and now has a job offer from Amazon and graduate school admission letters from both UCI and UC San Diego.
Can you talk a bit about your path to UCI?
Basically, my path was really easy — just a flight from Guangzhou, China to LAX. That’s it.
You make it sound so simple!
I was a “traditional” high school student in China, so I wasn’t on the international track, which is for students who plan to study abroad. For traditional students, which Chinese college you attend depends on your score on the high school exit exam, but at the time, I wasn’t the strongest student academically. I was involved in other activities. I was president of the student union and director of the high school prom — which was rare, because very few schools in China hold a prom. So I picked UCI because it was the best school on my list and it seemed really well-rounded, letting me explore many possible career paths.
What about your decision to study computer science?
When I first entered as a freshman, I was undeclared, and then because both of my parents are accounting professors, I quickly switched to business economics. During my first quarter, I was only enrolled in three classes: economics, math and academic English — a requirement for international students. However, to explore my interests, I audited a lot of other classes, including psychology and French, but I was most attracted to drama, music and computer science. By the end of my first year, I had already taken two computer sciences classes. I had learned a lot about management and economics from my parents and during high school, but computer languages were new to me and I wanted to see if I could do something technical, so I decided to change my major.
Have you had a favorite professor or class at UCI?
Alex Thornton, my professor for ICS 32, helped push me to try computer science. ICS 32 was my second computer science class, which made me eligible to change my major. Thornton knew that this was the case for many of his students. So, in his last lecture, he talked about three groups of students. He said that by the end of ICS 32, one third of the students knew that they loved computer programming and wanted to change majors. He was pleased to have helped them explore their interest in computer languages. Another third had realized they definitely didn’t want to study computer programming, and he was glad he helped them figure out that this wasn’t the right career path for them. He then told the students between the two groups that they shouldn’t give up on computer science just because it seems too hard. He said that other majors are hard too, so if you like computer programming but you’re struggling, keep trying. I was in the middle group. I thought his projects were really interesting but challenging, and his exams were tricky, but after this conversation, I decided to give it a shot.
Have you been involved in any activities at UCI?
Because I was really involved in activities in high school, when I came to the U.S., I decided to pay more attention to my studies, which is why I audited all those classes. Plus, I had culture shock and language barriers, so for the first two years, I purely studied.
By the end of my second year, because of my experience in switching majors, I applied to be an academic advisor for the ICS Student Affairs Office. Working as an advisor was a really enjoyable and valuable experience. In addition to helping students, I got a lot out of it too in terms of learning how to communicate with many different people.
What has been the best part of your experience at UCI?
I would say the English Conversation Program. It’s my secret weapon — it’s why I can speak relatively fluent English. It’s a class, 50 minutes per week, on English conversation, and you learn about U.S. culture as well. After a year of taking the class, I volunteered for the next three years as an English facilitator for the program. It helped me grow so much from 2014 to 2018.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m pretty lucky to have a job lined up and to have been admitted to grad school. Last summer, I had an internship at Amazon, and now I can work there as a software engineer. Traditional Chinese thinking really values your graduate degree though. An undergraduate degree isn’t enough, because I eventually want to return to China. I’m pleased to know that admissions officers value me as a computer science student, because I will go to graduate school eventually, even if not now. I think I’m going be a programmer first to gain practical experience while earning enough money to later put myself through grad school.
Do you have any advice for prospective students?
A lot of students struggle, not necessarily academically, but personally. College is difficult in terms of learning how to handle the realities of life — roommates, commuting and so on — while also focusing on your studies. Especially starting in your third year, you can’t just focus on your classes. You also need to think about your future, lining up an internship or studying for the GRE. Find a good balance for everything. And for international students in particular, be brave. Everyone here is so nice. Don’t be afraid to share your story and communicate with others.
— Shani Murray