Zishen (Norman) Ye has been a U of I alumnus for just a short time, but already he’s realized the enduring impact of things he learned there. That’s why he’s decided to support U of I students who take advantage of internship opportunities while in college.
Ye (BA, ’19, political science; BS, ’19, urban and regional planning) came to U of I by following a diverse set of interests. He’d been intrigued by international relations and political science in high school, and he’d also become interested by the growth and development of his hometown of Shanghai, China. He wanted to go to a university where he could study all of those areas.
“I chose U of I because of its reputation and academic rigor,” he said.
Ye took full advantage of the opportunity at U of I—and added a little academic rigor of his own. During the fall of his junior year, a particularly busy semester, he enrolled in eight classes (29 credit hours) while also looking for internships. His advisor had never seen a student take on such a heavy load and urged him to drop some courses, but some of them weren’t offered every semester, and one of the professors Ye wanted was retiring.
“As I walked through an empty parking lot on a sad grey-ish-looking day, I remembered U of I's motto of ‘Learning and Labor’ and thought that if nobody has ever done this, I shall be the first,” Ye recalled. “And, somehow I survived with a 4.0 that semester. This particular motto also drove me to get the Bronze Tablet at the end (before graduation).”
One of his favorite classes was called Crisis Diplomacy. He signed up for the course because he was interested in the subject matter, but he learned even more than he expected.
“I remember learning why countries go to war and how some people try to prevent it, but fail and why countries still then go to war and how that could be prevented,” he said. “And that actually trained me a lot in my critical thinking abilities.”
Outside of the classroom, Ye was involved in Model UN for two years where he was the vice chair and chair of the simulations. Ye attended Model UN conferences as a high school student in Virginia, but in college he hosted one for the first time. The experience was fun and engaging, and he remains in contact with other members.
“We would prepare the meeting, simulation, materials and all the emergencies. It was fun, so I kept doing it,” Ye said.
In 2018, as a junior at U of I, Ye landed an internship at a Washington, D.C.-based think tank called the Center for Strategic and International Studies. During the internship he participated in the Illinois in Washington program with more than 30 other U of I students. The experience helped Ye realize the importance of networking in gaining opportunities, but Ye said he wished he had access to more resources and mentorship. Because of this, he decided to donate so that other students could worry less about financial stability and devote more time and resources to exploring other opportunities during internships.
“I made both of the donations for one particular purpose, which is to bridge the gap between real-world practice and academic learning,” Ye said. “My internship in D.C. taught me that the real world requires networking, outreach, communication beyond academia, engaging people from the private and public sector, etc. Therefore, I wish another student in my shoes would have more resources, so they can spend more time equipping themselves with skill sets that can't be learned from books.”
He added that he was also inspired to give by his parents’ philanthropy and other donors who helped him.
Ye, who graduated with a master’s degree from Columbia University at the end of April, approached the U of I about making a gift after he secured a job at the Shanghai office of McKinsey & Company, a global consulting firm. His donations will go to the Department of Political Science and the Department of Urban & Regional Planning, with the gifts named the Zishen Ye Scholarship for Distinguished Practice in Political Science and the Zishen Ye Fund for Outstanding Practice in Urban Planning.
Ye will return to Shanghai this fall to work as a management consultant. He said he will always be grateful for his four years at U of I and for the unconditional support he received while he was here.
“I think helping others will eventually help yourself, because we’re all being helped every day,” he said. “That's how we get to where we are, just don't forget that. So, keep sending the ladder down.”