Hanyu Ye on Loneliness, Connection, and Embracing Our Differences
This interview has been edited for clarity and style.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background and what drew you to Columbia?
I'm an international student from China and a first-generation graduate student. Columbia's always been my dream school. In college, I studied in San Francisco and majored in marketing — no connection with social work.
After undergrad I went back to China and got a high paying job. While at the job, I was introduced to a program which donates a lung cancer drug to low income families. I was touched by this program. I realized that if I use my personal passion, I can help one or two people, but if I have professional knowledge and make this my career, I may have a chance to help a group of people or even change a generation of people's lives.
So, I quit my job and came back to America. Columbia has the best faculty in the world in the field of social work. That's why I chose Columbia.
Can you tell me about what you've been involved with outside of the classroom?
For my program in social work, we not only need to take classes, but we're also required to spend at least three days of the week at a field placement. It's a very packed schedule, but I really enjoy it.
Last year, I got to intern at the City Hall Older Adults Center. While I was there, I got an opportunity to communicate with lots of immigrants and seniors. They came from around the world, and I learned a lot about their different backgrounds from my communication with them. I began to see that a lot of seniors feel “invisible.” During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us communicated and had fun through social media. It was how we connected with others, but for seniors, it was very hard for them. Because they weren’t as familiar with this technology, they lived in a very unhappy situation. No one gave them a chance to have a real life.
This year, I'm very lucky to intern at the United Nations. The most important thing I learned from the UN is what real globalization is. I met people from around the world, and it's helped me to improve my understanding of diversity and how to work at an international organization.
“I feel lucky that I was chosen to be a University Life Ambassador. It’s given me the opportunity to meet new people, make friends, and also improved my understanding of Columbia.”
I feel lucky that I was chosen to be a University Life Ambassador. It’s given me the opportunity to meet new people, make friends, and also improved my understanding of Columbia. Within the Ambassador program, there are people from around the world with different majors, who have different understandings. That makes it a super fun space for collaboration. When I applied to be an Ambassador, it was not only for myself. I wanted to break out of some of the stereotypes put on Asian people: “They never speak,” “They’re always quiet,” and especially for women, “They don't have an opinion.” I wanted to show my peers Chinese culture, that Asian people have an opinion, and that we’re brave enough to speak out. Being an Ambassador is not only a title, it’s a really meaningful opportunity to create a more inclusive Columbia. I appreciate having the chance as an Ambassador to speak up and to share ideas.
I also have two hobbies: taking photos and doing my own online radio show. Life is short, and every moment my memory fades. Taking photos is the best way for me to remember. I worked at a children's TV station as a host for ten years, so I know how to use my voice to connect with people. When I studied abroad, I realized lots of people, especially international students, are alone, don't know how to communicate with others, and feel sad. That’s why in 2016, I started my own online radio show. It's kind of like a “good night” radio show. I share my favorite article from the week and my opinion about it. I’ve gotten connected with lots of international students through the show, and some have shared that it’s helped them feel less homesick.
What have been some of the biggest joys and challenges during your time at Columbia?
As an international student, it can be lonely. At the very beginning, I was scared of loneliness. I have a really great relationship with my family, and I have a deep connection with my colleagues and friends in China. There, I have no time to feel lonely. I always have people around me. Being in a Master’s program is also different from undergrad because during undergraduate there’s more time for parties and hanging out with friends. As a master student, everyone is so busy. Even if you have lots of friends, no one can hang out with you all the time.
Now, I can say I enjoy the loneliness because it's given me time to have communication within myself, to learn how to self-care, and to understand what I really want to do and what kind of person I really want to be. I'm older than many of my peers, so I always feel like I should cherish this time as a student. All the things I do, I enjoy them, so I never feel tired. I don’t want to waste any moment.
I’ve gotten a lot of support. When you invited me to do this interview, I was excited and thinking, What should I do? What should I prepare? I asked for help from my classmates and from my professor. We did a practice interview, and they gave me a lot of instruction. That is the kind of thing I feel really joyful about. The whole University helped me to be the person I want to be. That's the most joyful thing on my mind right now.
“As an international student, it can be lonely. At the very beginning, I was scared of loneliness… Now, I can say I enjoy the loneliness because it's given me time… to understand what I really want to do and what kind of person I really want to be.”
What advice do you have for students who will be coming into Columbia next year?
Embrace difference and enjoy loneliness. It's a way to grow love. Coming to Columbia is an opportunity to become friends with some of the best and most interesting people from around the world. You can connect with and learn about all kinds of different people. Getting to know people can be a journey of self-discovery.
What are you looking forward to after graduation?
Right now, I'm looking for a job, and hope to join either an NGO or nonprofit organization. I want to use my experience and expertise to be a voice for vulnerable groups, especially seniors, children and women. I plan to stay in the U.S. for now, but I’m not sure yet if it will be here in New York City or in San Francisco. I consider the U.S. my second home, and I feel I can learn a lot about social work in the U.S. I really want to go back to China at some point in the future because it's my country and my family is there.
“Embrace difference and enjoy loneliness”