Isabel Zhang (’19) reflects on her experiences as a Schwarzman Scholar and looks ahead to her next steps

July 8, 2019

Thirty years ago, my parents set foot in Madrid for the first time, and without speaking a word of Spanish, started a new life 10,000 kilometers away from their hometown of Wenzhou. Twenty years later, I stepped onto the college campus of the University of Bath in the UK as the first and only member of my family to go to university. Ever since, my life has been defined by every step that I have taken into the exciting and the unknown.

It is thrilling and terrifying all at the same time. But who would have known? As a child, I grew up playing with dolls while my brother played with miniature cars, reading stories about beautiful princesses saved by their male heroes. Chances were that I would matter-of-factly slide into the stereotypical gender role of a woman. But as I was coming of age, something was quietly changing inside of me. Perhaps it was moving out and living away from home, or maybe it was seeing both my parents working day and night in the small Chinese restaurant that supported our family. But I no longer wanted to rely on others, and became focused on myself and striving to become an independent woman.

My first taste of independence was financial independence. After graduating, I took a well-paying job in one of the most competitive investment banks (mostly surrounded by men). I loved it because I was constantly learning, pushing my limits, sharpening my technical and interpersonal skills, and gaining the financial flexibility and confidence to broaden my interests. As many of my peers were quickly climbing up the corporate ladder, I decided to take another step into the unknown, this time quitting and coming to China, to Schwarzman College.

I came to Schwarzman expecting to learn about China’s development in the global context from a historical and cultural perspective, from some of the most thought-provoking and influential economic and political thinkers of our time. I wanted to build a global network of friends that were equally acutely aware of the importance of China in today’s world, and we would be together wherever we went in the future. All of this, I got, and more. More importantly, I was profoundly inspired by my peers, and female peers in particular. They were women who had excelled through the ranks of the military and policeforce, women that had cycled thousands of miles across the US to hear the unheard stories of refugees, women that had started their own businesses, or that like me, had worked their way in male-dominated industries. I was conscious of our differences in ethnicity and upbringing, but also awestruck by the similarity of our struggles. Their fearlessness, wisdom, compassion and grit became a source of inspiration and encouragement that shall continue to be.

So what’s next? In my application essay to Schwarzman, I said I wanted to make an impact in the world in environmental protection and climate change, but I wasn’t 100% sure how I would do it. Here is the latest plan: After Schwarzman, I will be joining a global Chinese solar company, one of the largest vertically integrated solar manufacturers and solar energy solutions providers in the world. My goal is to accelerate the world’s clean energy transition by dramatically increasing the commercial deployment of solar energy. This is yet another step into the unknown (albeit in Suzhou, only 400 kilometers from my parents’ hometown of Wenzhou!), in another ruthlessly competitive and fast-growing industry, also, largely dominated by male leaders. However, after a year of exploring and testing my dreams and beliefs at Schwarzman College, I am more certain than ever that the path I am now embarking on is a purposeful mission rooted in my beliefs and values. Perhaps it is not a step into the “unknown” unknown, but the “known” unknown, which is a much less daunting feat.