zoe zhaoWhen economics undergrad Zoe Zhao arrived in Irvine in 2014 for UCI’s new student welcome, she saw the city that she would be calling home for the next four years for the very first time.

Zhao had traveled from her home in Wenzhou, China – about an hour’s flight from Shanghai – with the vision of studying economics in the United States, and she knew upon that first visit that UCI was where she wanted to be. Now in her final undergraduate year, she’s a stellar student, a tutor in UCI’s Economics Learning Center, and an undergraduate honors program researcher studying the influences behind people’s donation habits. She’s participated in volunteer trips with the Cross-Cultural Center, served on the Student Center Board of Advisors, and generally taken advantage of as many opportunities as she can. As she approaches her final quarter as an undergraduate Anteater, Zhao shares what she loves so much about UCI and economics, as well as some advice for incoming international students. 


Why did you decide to study internationally?

In my second year of high school, I went to a summer camp in Utah. I hadn’t thought about going to school outside of China, but after visiting the U.S. I started to think about studying in another place and seeing different things. And the U.S. can offer a great education. So I decided to leave everything I had done before behind and started to prepare to study in the U.S. I had to learn English and study for the SATs. It was a very hard decision to make.

How did you adjust to university life and life in a new country?

I participated in the freshman summer program here. So I came one month early and lived in the Arroyo Vista dorm and was able to meet other international students like me and local students.

Once school started, the difficult part is not really the studies. I have good habits and I know how to study so it wasn’t that difficult to adjust to the classroom environment. But I think the harder part is in the culture, or getting involved in groups here. That’s why I chose to be involved with the Student Center Board of Advisors – so I could have regular communication with different people. I just had to take the steps to look and communicate with people. Now I feel very at home here.

How did your parents feel about you going so far from home?

They really support my decision. They have the view that young people have to have more experiences and take steps out to see different things and grow as a more complete person.

Why did you decide to study economics?

Economics is the foundation for a lot of subjects especially from a business perspective. So I planned to start with economics and go from there. At that time I didn’t have a specific plan for my career goals. So it was a foundation that would be easy to transition from in the future.

What do you enjoy most about economics?

I really started to enjoy economics because it is something you can relate to your real life. It uses simple equations to give you a basic idea about how the market works and people’s reactions.Mostly I am really interested in people’s behavior and how they act. Sometimes it deviates from classical economic theory – like with my research on donation behavior. By classical economic theory, people shouldn’t give any money to others without getting anything in back. It’s not an expected behavior. But the reality is people do give to others.

How did you find your research topic?

I knew UCI was a research university so I wanted to take advantage of that. So I started talking with professors and I read a lot of papers and finally decided that what interested me a lot was people’s donation behavior. Why do people make donations? It’s something worth studying also because, particularly in the U.S., private donation makes up a big portion of charity funds. So maybe studies like mine could give charities ideas on how to increase their private donations.

What are your plans after you graduate in the spring?

While working as a tutor in the Economics Learning Center, I realized that I enjoy teaching. So I’d like to be a teacher and researcher. SoI am planning to continue school and get my Ph.D. in economics here in the U.S. then go on to become a professor.

What is it you like about tutoring and teaching?

If you can help the student understand something they didn’t before, it’s very satisfying. And I can teach others what I know which makes what I know more valuable and worthwhile.

What advice do you have for incoming international students?

Reach out and seek opportunities to communicate with professors. Let them know if you’re interested in a topic or worried about something and they will give you a lot of help.

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