Alumni of the Month  |  2018-08
August 27, 2018

Medicine, Migration, and Michigan: Gilman Alumnus Finds his Passion

How do you make a difference in this world? That question was on Hunter Zhao’s mind when he first stepped foot on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 2014, as a first generation college student. His plan was to make a difference in the lives of those around him, and “serving as a doctor seemed like the ultimate way of being a change-maker in society.” For two years, Hunter did everything a pre-med student was supposed to do -- organic chemistry, physics, biology, and volunteering at the local hospital -- yet he couldn’t envision a future for himself in medicine. It was in his classes in migration and sociology that his imagination soared, but he wasn’t sure how to pursue a career built around those topics.

“Having no prior exposure to professionals in those fields, I couldn’t count on the stability or accessibility of such careers, especially when the stakes were so high as the first [person] in my family to go college. Studying at the International Center for Hellenic and Mediterranean Studies [as a Gilman Scholar] was life-changing because, for the first time, I was able to expand my definition of who could make a difference in our world,” Hunter recalls. After my exchange program, I gained the confidence to pursue what I loved studying the most, international migration.

Hunter’s exchange experience led him to an internship at the Post-Conflict Research Center in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, followed by an internship at the Office of International Migration at the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. During his time as an intern at State, Hunter says that he learned the value and intricacy of diplomacy, and “was able to appreciate the more mundane functions of government that are often times overlooked by the general public -- [and] that are critical to supporting everyday life in the United States.”

As the first member of his family to go to college, Hunter cares deeply about helping other low-income and first-generation college students pursue life-changing opportunities. Upon returning to Ann Arbor, Hunter was selected as a 2017-2018 Gilman Alumni Ambassador, a role in which he has helped promote the Gilman Program and encourage others to study abroad and apply for the Gilman Scholarship. He also spent his senior year as the President of the First-Generation College Students at Michigan association. Through in-person activities in his community, as well as online engagement with the alumni community at-large, his experience as a Gilman Scholar helped him connect his other advocacy work with international education.

“For many students who come from low-income backgrounds, or are the first in their families to study abroad – let alone attend college, there are many misconceptions regarding the accessibility of interning, working, or studying abroad. In addition to sharing funding opportunities and how international education contributes to personal and professional development, I was able to speak to my fellow first-gens about how study abroad has impacted my life and shaped my aspirations,” he said. Hunter combined his role as a Gilman Alumni Ambassador with his position as a peer advisor at the University of Michigan’s study abroad office, where he reached over 3,000 students through seminars and workshops on intercultural exchanges and the power of connecting international communities.

Hunter is currently pursuing a Master’s of Art in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University in New York City, New York. Next year, he will take a leave of absence to serve as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Malaysia, where he looks forward to sharing diverse aspects of American culture with his students, while immersing himself in a new community.

Hunter’s Gilman Scholarship experience and his activities as an exchange program alumnus have deeply impacted his life and helped him pursue his true passions, and he’s looking forward to meeting more Gilman and other exchange alumni wherever he goes. “When I meet Gilman alumni, despite differences in appearance or professional goals, I know that we have similar backgrounds and passions when it comes to international education. Hoping to enter the field of migration policy, I know that I will be encountering more alumni from State Department-sponsored exchange programs.”

Each month, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ (ECA) Office of Alumni Affairs recognizes one outstanding alumnus or alumna. The International Exchange Alumni community looks forward to seeing what Hunter will do next, and we all congratulate him on being named the August 2018 Exchange Alumni Member of the Month