International Student Spotlights

Gaoqi (Gina) Zhang

CCIEE 1 + 2 + 1 Student

Xi'an International Studies University

Beijing, China

On Oct. 19, 2016, a swimmer from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke (UNCP), Gina Zhang, won three event titles in the competition against Barton and Ferrum at the Rocky Mount Family YMCA. She touched the wall nearly 52 seconds faster than the other swimmers in the women’s 500-yard freestyle. That same evening, she also won overwhelmingly in the 100-yard breaststroke and the 200-yard individual medley. Because of her perfect performance that day, the competition became her most impressive event in the 2016–2017 fall and winter season.

Gina’s name was reported in the headline of her school’s breaking news. A news story titled “Zhang Wins Three Events, Swimming & Diving Edged by Barton and Ferrum” was immediately posted on the school website after the competition ended.

“I was so proud of myself, because I won as a foreigner. It is my honor to win something for UNCP as an international student,” Gina said.

Since joining the UNCP swimming and diving team (nicknamed the Braves) in the 2016 fall semester, Gina has grabbed first place in the pool many times during the season and was selected as UNCP “Brave of the Week” multiple times up till January 2017. What has made Gina so successful is her great passion for swimming and hard training day after day.

Before becoming one of the Braves, Gina was a seasoned swimmer in middle school and high school. Although she came to the United States for her university education, she did not want to give up swimming, her favorite sport. With lots of school team experiences under her belt, she got into the Braves with no problems.

When talking about the training process for swimming, it often seems too painful for an ordinary person to imagine enjoying. The Braves have in-pool training from 6:00 to 7:30 a.m. every weekday morning, and their main task is to swim for 4,000 meters. Strength training is also necessary, and it is scheduled for 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. During the season, Gina also has extra training with her teammates, such as running around the campus and weight lifting.

“Gina is a great teammate, and she’s extremely focused in training. She is my motivation in the team,” said Sonyaliz Goveo, one of Gina’s teammates.

Although Gina is a speedy swimmer, things were not always easy for her at the beginning. As a non-English speaker, language was a huge barrier to communication. “I even did not understand the training instructions,” Gina recalled. She was very shy about talking to Americans and was not confident about speaking English. However, with the help of the Braves members, she has made great progress in English. Now she can speak more fluently and even dares to talk to strangers.

Language improvement is not the only Gina has gained from the Braves. Most importantly, she has developed friendships with the girls on the team. Every time they go out for competitions, they share drinks and snacks, chat, and have fun in the school bus. “We [all] like going travel,” Gina said with a laugh. At their leisure, the Braves girls take her to new restaurants, and they all have fun together.

On Gina’s 21st birthday, the Braves held a secret party for her. After a series of training exercises in the early morning, Coach Blank and Gina’s teammates brought her cupcakes, and in a split second, the in-pool training session had turned into a poolside birthday party. Everybody sang happy birthday to Gina, which deeply moved her. Having such a pleasant surprise was one of the most enjoyable moments Gina has experienced while on the swimming team.

Kelsey Williams, a Braves swimmer, said Gina was quiet when they first met. Her only impression about Gina was “she is the fastest swimmer in our team.” However, as they got to know each other, she discovered another side of Gina’s character.

“Now she is talkative,” Kelsey said, “and she is smart.” Also, Kelsey described Gina as a “naughty” girl. “She likes to scare people. She swims under me when we are in the water, and she likes to jump into water after training.” After a few months, they had become best friends. “We work out, hang out, we do everything together.”

Besides being best friends, Gina and Kelsey are competitors on the team. “She made me a better swimmer,” said Kelsey.

Since Gina is graduating in May, Sonyaliz joked, “We are trying to find her a husband, so she can stay in America. She can live with me.”

Kelsey sighed and shared that, “Things will be difficult without her. I won’t let her go back to China.”

Meanwhile, Sonyaliz said, “I am gonna miss her. I love this relationship with her, and we will definitely keep in contact.”

Gina Zhang and friends

Before attending UNCP in the United States, Gina spent her freshmen year at Xi’an International Studies University. She had been looking for an opportunity to study abroad, and that was why the US–China 1+2+1 Dual Degree Transfer Program attracted her attention. Once students complete the program, they will receive two diplomas: one from a Chinese university and one from an American university. Therefore, in her second year at Xi’an, Gina left the familiar surroundings of her hometown and came to UNCP to study.

Gina plays a dual role at UNCP. On the one hand, she is the top swimmer on the school’s team; on the other hand, she is a junior political science major. Before Gina came to UNCP, she knew little about the university. Her parents chose UNCP for her simply because UNCP is one of the safest campuses in America. The climate was also an important factor in her decision to come to North Carolina. Growing up in Beijing, Gina yearns for warmer days and fewer natural hazards.

Sometimes Gina’s swim training clashes with her studies. In her timetable, she has classes in between her morning and afternoon training sessions. When she has a paper due the next day, she has to burn the midnight oil, sleep for two or three hours, and then start swim training at 6 a.m. Even with the biggest challenge of language studies, Gina has kept a 3.7 GPA, which is a really good grade in university.

According to Gina’s academic advisor, Dr. Kevin Freeman, she is a hard-working student who takes academics very seriously.  She goes to class regularly and does excellent work.  Her writing skills are better than many students whose first language is English. Student athletes must work even harder to juggle their schedules, and she does a fine job at this.

“She can put down her thoughts well in English, even when dealing with fairly complicated theoretical and scientific topics.  I have also seen improvement in her spoken English.  I think much of this can be attested to her willingness to move beyond just hanging out with other Chinese students and practicing her English with American students.  She has made a strong, concerted effort to continually improve her writing skills,” said Dr. Freeman.

“I enjoy studying here,” Gina said.

Influenced by her father, Gina always has news channels playing on TV at home. “He is a government officer. He likes political news, but I prefer sport news,” she said. Her father wishes she will be an officer one day, just like him. However, with Gina’s enthusiasm for sports, she has her own dream job: to work for an Organizing Committee for an Olympic Games. To make her dream come true, she plans to attend graduate school in the United States and major in sport management for further education.

Living in the United States for almost two years has changed Gina’s lifestyle and shaped her personality. In a self-evaluation, Gina says she has become more open-minded, and formed the habits of kindly greeting people and holding the door for others. Moreover, she is much more independent and mature now when dealing with all kinds of matters. “Now, I feel like I am a real grown-up,” she said.

Like other international students, Gina has experienced many difficult and happy moments in her life of studying abroad. Finding the chance to integrate into American culture, making some American friends, and showing your talents are all things Gina suggests other students who are studying abroad in the United States. “If you are doing things just like what you did in China, then what is the difference between living in China and America?”

Swimming Stats

  • Women’s 100-yard breaststroke, finals time 1:20.14.
  • Women’s 200-yard individual medley, finals time 2:27.92.
  • Women’s 500-yard freestyle, finals time 5:51.86.

Article written by Ruoyu Chen

Hilary Beale

Exchange Student

Canterbury Christ Church University

Canterbury, England

From the rainy skies of England to the sunshine states of America. I studied at UNC Pembroke for the academic 2015-2016 year. I was a 21-year-old exchange student studying at UNC Pembroke from Canterbury Christ Church University. I got the full experience at Pembroke as I studied for the Fall and Spring semesters for my junior year in my university career. During my year at Pembroke I got to be involved with homecoming, the marching band (The Spirt of the Carolinas), and Thanksgiving as well as many different on campus activities inducing movie nights, arts and crafts, the Halloween Party and many other events.

I started my university career at Canterbury Christ Church University, a historic city located in the South East corner of England. The University shares the city with the famous Canterbury Cathedral and Canterbury Tales. London is only a short journey of about 50 minutes on the train. At Canterbury I study International Relations and American Studies. I completed two years at Canterbury, studied at UNC Pembroke for my Junior year and I am in my final year back at Canterbury Christ Church University. Normally my course would have been a three-year degree, but I extended my course when I decided to study in America for a year. I am originally from Bury St. Edmunds, which is located two and a half hours north of Canterbury. Bury St Edmunds is 20 minutes east of Cambridge. The town is similar to Canterbury as there is a huge historic influence on the buildings. I was lucky enough to make so many new American friends while I was staying at UNC Pembroke, but I also shared my study abroad experience with the other International Students who were also undertaking a year or semester abroad at Pembroke. Not only was I able to learn about the culture in North Carolina, I also got to learn about different cultures from other countries that are closer to home.  During fall semester, I was able to watch the UNC Pembroke Braves football team play in the Grace. P Johnson Stadium on the Lumbee Guaranty Bank Field. I was also able to be a member of the Spirt of the Carolinas Marching Band who performed at the games during half time. In England, American football is not as popular as it is in America. We do not have marching bands that perform during half time in games of any sport.  

In addition, I was lucky enough to be taught by one of the members of the Spirt of the Carolinas on how to twirl a flag. This skill is something that I would have never have learnt if I had not studied abroad in America and at UNC Pembroke. The Spirit of the Carolinas Marching Band was invited to attend and be part of a Christmas Parade in Norfolk, VA. Seeing the marching band perform on the football field is amazing, but seeing them and walking with them in a Christmas parade is, to me, out of this world and something that I would have never ever expected to experience.

The classes that I took at UNC Pembroke were ones that I would not have been able to take when in Canterbury. I took counter terrorism classes in the Criminal Justice Department. This topic is something that has interested me for a while and it has led me to decide the topic of my 10,000-word dissertation that I have to complete in my final year at Canterbury. From these classes I was able to get a better insight in the way that the American criminal justice works and the American view on criminal behaviour. The classes were very different to the ones that we have in England. In England, we have two or three classes a week that are 2-3 hours long. Whereas at Pembroke, I would have 2-3 classes for the same subject a week for only an hour. There was a lot more work at Pembroke compared to the amount that I have to do at Canterbury. Instead of having the 1 or 2 papers a semester for each subject that I had in Canterbury, I had small tests every week with several papers in each subject at Pembroke. I enjoyed my class schedule with that level of work, as I felt as though I learnt in a unique way compared to the classes in Canterbury.

Within the first week after arriving at UNC Pembroke, the International Programmes Office took the international students to downtown Raleigh. I didn’t know many people at Pembroke or the other international students, so it was the perfect occasion to meet the other international students as well as explore a part of North Carolina. We had a guided tour of the North Carolina State Capitol as well as the North Carolina Museum of Natural History. Another trip that I took with International Programs was a trip to see the farm animals, bake and then make our own leather bracelets.

On several occasions, I was lucky enough to meet the Chancellor of the University. Chancellor Cummings was elected into the position only a month before I arrived at Pembroke. He and his wife were incredibly welcoming to the international students. He invited the international students to his house for a welcome dinner and again for a farewell dinner. He was a very active chancellor, who would always say hi to me or any other international students if he saw us on campus. The small community of Pembroke is something I liked the most about the university. The close-knit university allows you to get to know a lot of students, professors and the Chancellor.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my year studying at UNC Pembroke. I learnt and experienced so much from my time there. Not only was I able to academically advance my knowledge, but I was able to make friends and memories that I will remember forever. If I were able to, then I would be on the first plane back to America and UNC Pembroke.