Michelle Zhang is a junior at Duke studying Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science, with a minor in French! Her hometown is in Iquique, Chile, where she was born and raised. At Duke, she is Co-Director of HackDuke and Marketing Co-Chair at Catalyst. In her free time, Michelle is a fan of puzzles and Rubik’s cubes, and singing along to foreign music.
This conversation took place between Michelle and Isabella over a Zoom call in early September.
Isabella: Hey Michelle! So happy to get to talk to you.
Michelle: Thanks for having me!
Isabella: Where did you grow up and how did you end up at Duke? And when did you start getting into ECE/CS?
Michelle: My parents moved to Chile around ten years before I was born, so I spent most of my childhood in Iquique, Chile. Up until seventh grade, I went to a bilingual school, which essentially meant that we had to take an English class. After that, I went to The International School Nido de Aguilas in Santiago, Chile, which was the only large international school in Chile. About a third of the class was from Chile, and the rest were students from all over the world, places like the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands. After the transition, in eighth grade, I had a really great science teacher who taught us physics, and around then I started to realize that I was interested in technology and computers.
As for how I got to Duke… when we were getting ready to apply to college, we had college recruiters visit our school, and I remember saying to my friend when a Duke recruiter was presenting, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I applied to Duke?” And she replied, “Yea, that would be funny!” Well, I guess we all know how that turned out – I gave it a shot, got in, and here I am!
Isabella: Wow that’s a crazy coincidence! How was the change coming to the U.S.?
Michelle: It definitely helped that I had grown up in a continuously changing environment, so that was my normal. Students in the international school were coming and going all the time. One of my closest friends moved away in junior year, but we still talk and she actually just came to visit me a while ago. So, I don’t think I got as much of a culture shock as I would’ve if I hadn’t had that sort of environment around me, because I got used to the fact that my world was always changing. Also, I grew up around American friends and American pop culture, so that wasn’t really surprising to me once I came to Duke. I don’t think most Americans realize how widespread their pop culture is in some other countries.
Isabella: That’s really interesting. I had thought that moving from Chile to the U.S. would take more of an adjustment but it seems like the multicultural world you grew up in was a great benefit. Just wondering, was there any particular reason you went to mainly bilingual and international schools in Chile?
Michelle: I think I was fortunate enough to have parents with a sort of global mindset
so they were keen on having me learn various languages and meet new people and be able to explore other parts of the world once I grew up. My older brother also went to the same international school before me, so I knew from pretty early on that that was where I was planning to go. I was pretty excited too because it felt like a change of pace from Iquique, where I had lived since I was born.
Isabella: That makes sense. My parents are the same way. We still mainly speak Mandarin at home since they were afraid I was lose it.
Michelle: Yeah! I also took Mandarin classes when I was younger.
Isabella: You actually know quite a few languages then, from living in Chile but also going to bilingual and international schools.
Michelle: Yes! I learned Spanish, English, and Mandarin when I was growing up, and I actually took up French at Duke. When I was younger, I really liked the French aesthetic and culture and I thought French sounded really pretty, so I always wanted to learn it. I actually took up the French minor so I would be able to commit to learning it!
Isabella: That’s a neat trick actually. It’s hard to find the time to keep up with something unless you find a way to really integrate it into your life.
Michelle: Yes, I usually find that there’s too much I want to do and not enough time, so I try to commit to something related to my interests, like learning French or graphic design, to hold myself accountable to following through with it. For French, I started from scratch at Duke and now I’m starting classes where I can start discussing very specific topics or fields in French, which is pretty interesting. For graphic design, I’m learning PixelArt with my co-chair to help with marketing and publicizing on social media. So, I would say that I’ve tried a lot of different things and I’m not super super good at any of them, but committing myself to some of them has definitely helped.
Isabella: That’s a great point. Thank you so much, Michelle! This has been really fun.
Michelle: Thank you!