Student Success: From Partnership Participant to PhD
Routes to First-Rate Education for International StudentsJan 17, 2023
From a young age, Yang (Brandon) Zhou showed an interest in engineering, peppering his father, a civil engineer, with questions about the equipment that the parent brought home from work every day. Toward the end of high school, Zhou took China’s mandatory Gaokao test, which determines one’s major and where to attend college. Not surprisingly, he showed a strong aptitude for civil engineering.
Starting college at Northeast Forestry University (NEFU) in his hometown of Harbin, Zhou learned about NEFU’s 3 + 1 + 1 partnership with the University of Colorado Denver. Studies for the first three years are in China; in the fourth year, students can attend CU Denver to complete their bachelor’s degree and then earn a master’s degree.
“I thought it was a great opportunity. The partnership with CU Denver was very established, and provides a clear path to what you’ll be learning. I applied, and arrived in Denver in 2012,” said Zhou.
He also thinks this led to a smoother transition from China to Colorado. “Both universities know what’s expected of students in the program, and I felt very welcomed.” Several receptions were hosted for his cohort of 10 students. Professors and staff from NEFU came to visit Denver several times to see how the students were doing, and check in to see what else might be needed. “There was a feeling of being taken care of, and there were good communications going in both directions.”
The Office of International Affairs (OIA) provided ample resources for the students, and Zhou considered the OIA staff members to be very approachable. “They’re easy-going but took our questions seriously. They also have great activities for international students, including the Global Buddies program.”
Zhou continued into a PhD program in civil engineering at CU Denver. In one of his classes, the students had the opportunity to work on an innovative project between CU Denver’s College of Engineering, Design, and Computing, and the City and County of Denver. They were able to team with a professional engineering company and get hands-on, real-world experience by investigating the structural integrity of bridges in the area, including for the West 8th Avenue viaduct and Washington Park.
He explained, “We looked for signs of distress due to the structure’s age, life cycle, and possible effects of the changing climate. We’d send our data back to the collection base, analyzing the findings for a year. The work is exciting, and so is the fun of going up in a bucket truck to inspect tall bridges!”
Throughout the course, Zhou discovered that he liked using his skills to focus on “horizontal structures” such as bridges and roads. “Infrastructures are interesting to me, especially in the way that they connect people, goods, and services on a daily and year-round basis.”
During the process, he made business connections to Stantec, a respected design and engineering company in Colorado. They liked Zhou’s work and professional attitude and offered him an internship, which he was able to pursue through Curricular Practical Training (CPT).
“The work that I was doing during my studies led into my PhD thesis topic, ‘A New Approach to Bridge Temperature Technology.’” And Stantec had a job waiting for him when he graduated.
Zhou is enthusiastic about his educational and work experiences in Denver. “There’s value to learning in an urban environment in the United States. Studying at CU Denver led me to potential contacts in the engineering industry, and to my job. You can take that knowledge and experience with you and work in your home country and in other countries.”
He also took advantage of CU Denver’s student clubs, joining the Asian Students Association, as well as Colorado’s outdoor activities during the weekend.
“There are many beautiful areas in the Rocky Mountains, near to Denver. In the summer, I go hiking; you can enjoy all four seasons in Colorado,” said Zhou. “Colorado is where I learned how to snowboard; it’s now one of my favorite activities!”
“In looking back, I came here at 21 years old, and this has been a golden decade for me. It’s been a time to develop myself and pursue my goals. It transformed me from an introvert into a person who is comfortable reaching out to new people and working with teams.”
From his own experiences, Zhou advises other international students to not be shy and to experience all that CU Denver has to offer. “Reach out to OIA and your professors when you need help, reaching out is not a bad thing. Don’t worry about whether your English is clear – people will understand and they want to communicate with you. Don’t close the door on yourself.”
When Zhou started college, he wanted to “reach the mark, the peak, which for me would be a PhD degree.” He was proud to walk the stage at the December 2022 commencement ceremonies to receive his PhD.
“To reward myself for graduating with a doctorate degree, I bought the very best ski/snowboarding pass available, and I’m celebrating at Copper Mountain’s snowboarding trails!” he said with a wide grin.
Zhou has indeed reached the peak – the top of his own bridge – to a fulfilling educational journey and a rewarding international career.