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Taking initiative to make a difference

Last year, 15 per cent of approximately 4,800 undergraduate students in the Faculty of Engineering were international, coming from nearly 60 countries. Mia Zhuang, a Chemical Engineering student from Taiyuan, China, was one of them.

Mia Zhuang’s first Welcome Week at McMaster University — full of high energy, bright colours, as well as new, unfamiliar faces — helped her feel immediately at home, even across the world and far from her hometown of Taiyuan, China.

The welcoming acts of kindness that the fourth-year Chemical Engineering student experienced when she first arrived in Hamilton impacted the then-16-year-old in more ways than one.

“The help I received just lit up my day and has always been a shining part of my memory that makes me fall in love and feel proud of my faculty and the university as a whole,” says Zhuang. “I want to do the same thing for others and make them feel the same way about the faculty I love. I hope even just the smallest things can make a difference.”

Mia Zhuang.

She decided to return to Welcome Week for the next three years as a member of “Red Suits” — an orientation committee made up of upper-year Engineering students who plan and welcome first-year students to campus each Fall. Known for donning red coveralls during that week to distinguish themselves across campus, the “Red Suits” team has helped Zhuang form friendships over the years with students who live both on and off-campus.

“Finding and creating opportunity happens easily at McMaster if you take initiative,” says Zhuang. “There’s something at McMaster for everyone.”

Zhuang references a musical that engineering students organize every year — the MacEng Musical — which Zhuang attends annually. Based on real musicals but re-written with new lines, backdrops and characters to include an engineering angle, it’s a popular annual event with Engineering and non-Engineering students alike.

“If you have an interest, you’ll be able to find something for yourself," says Zhuang. "It really depends on what kind of work you want to do and what kind of life you want.”

Zhuang doesn’t just believe in finding opportunities and creating experiences for herself. She acts upon her belief in taking initiative. Last year, she approached one of her professors with a request to be a research assistant in his lab, researching process controls related to an air separation plant. In 2017, McMaster Engineering faculty members mentored 269 undergraduate students in research projects, giving students the opportunity to gain invaluable skills in communication, data collection and analysis, teamwork building and networking, and apply what they learn in a classroom.

Mia Zhuang.

The benefits of getting involved far exceeded Zhuang’s expectations. Besides learning to better communicate one-on-one and in large groups, Zhuang gained a large dose of confidence.

“I now know more amazing people by getting involved and see amazing qualities other people have, which inspires me a lot and help me to become a more positive person,” says Zhuang.

Her research, which is coding and math-based, has provided her with the building blocks she needed to bridge the gap between school and real-world scenarios.

“The knowledge I learned from class helped me to build up the basics for understanding and digging into more interesting and useful stuff for real-world application, but I wasn’t ready for real-world application immediately. Research helped me fill this gap and find out what I’m truly interested in.”

It was McMaster’s reputation as a research-intensive university, its strong curriculum chemical engineering and its flexible co-op program that first attracted Zhuang.

McMaster University's Faculty of Engineering offers the largest undergraduate research program of any engineering school in Canada, which played a huge factor in Zhuang’s decision to accept her offer

The other major reason to attend McMaster for Zhuang was the emphasis and dedication that the university placed on co-operation and teamwork rather than competition.

“McMaster University has a really welcoming atmosphere,” Zhuang says. “People here help each other. We get to know each other. You need to put yourself out there and meet new people. Find out what you want to do and take the initiative to find opportunities for yourself.”