“Just take that step!”: How SAF alumni Junle Zhang realized his dreams of studying at UC Berkeley

Alumni spotlight

Junle Zhang
“I was speaking with professors at every office hour, and it really helped me a lot. Not only can you talk to them about the courses and material you’re learning, you can ask about graduate school applications, or discuss anything you’ve learned about yourself and life at Berkeley.”
Junle Zhang, UC Berkeley SAF Alumni

Junle Zhang dreamed of studying abroad. He craved the diversity, cultural immersion, and personal growth that he believed he would find in an international environment.

So when he discovered that he could study at UC Berkeley and earn credits towards his undergraduate degree from Southeast University in Nanjing, China, he pounced on the opportunity.

“UC Berkeley is one of the most famous public universities in the world,” says the 21-year-old student. “I knew it would be a good choice.”

Junle first stumbled upon the program through Study Abroad Foundation (SAF), which partners with his home university in China. Advisors helped talk him through his different options – he was also considering applying to University of Wisconsin – answering his questions through helpful Q&A sessions and guiding him through the application process.

Once he received the news that he had been accepted into his dream university, he was thrilled – but also knew that the hardest part of his journey had yet to come.

Living and studying at one of the world’s most prestigious universities with a long-standing tradition of innovative, boundary-breaking thinking would be no easy feat. But Junle was up for the challenge.

He enrolled in three different courses offered by UC Berkeley’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences – two undergraduate, and one at graduate level – over its Winter 2023 semester, which starts every January and concludes in April.

The difference in teaching styles between his home university classroom and UC Berkeley were immediately obvious to Junle.

“At Berkeley, the teachers encourage you to ask questions and discuss with others,” he says. “In Asia, at least in China, we just accept the information from the school, and don’t ask questions or talk with the teachers.”

Junle credits his resounding success – he earned A’s in every one of his courses – with the university's open-door communication policy between students and educators.

“There are office hours and discussion sections that we can discuss with the GSIs,” says Junle, referring to graduate student instructors, a unique feature of Berkeley classrooms that serve as a valuable resource for students, providing additional instruction, answering questions, and supporting the learning process.

“I was speaking with professors at every office hour, and it really helped me a lot. Not only can you talk to them about the courses and material you’re learning, you can ask about graduate school applications, or discuss anything you’ve learned about yourself and life at Berkeley.”

Over his four months at Berkeley, Junle says that he received invaluable advice from his professors, ranging from which graduate schools he should apply to, to how to obtain eligibility for a doctorate’s degree.

Enjoying easy access to Berkeley’s renowned faculty of professors, researchers and scholars helped Junle shape his future academic and career paths – a lasting memento from his time spent abroad.

Moreover, he established relationships with highly respected figures in his field, some of whom may now be willing to throw their support behind him as he pursues his future goals.

“One of the most important things about studying abroad is obtaining recommendation letters,” explains Junle. “Because I got As in my courses, it was easy for me to approach my professors and ask whether they could recommend me for graduate school applications,” he says, adding that he has already received one glowing recommendation from a UC Berkeley staff member.

Outside of the classroom, Junle also benefited. Although he was kept busy with 8-12 hours of homework per course each week, Junle lived in a shared apartment-style dormitory with other students, forging connections with like-minded people – and future UC Berkeley alumni – from all over the world.

His language skills improved substantially. “I thought learning in English would be challenging for me, but it turns out that was actually kind of easy,” says Junle, adding that he wasn’t required to submit any language certifications like TOEFL, but did have to pass a language-tested interview.

His confidence has also soared from the experience, and he admits that he’s still feeling the effects long after the program has ended.

“I’m back at my university now and I’m able to apply a different mode of learning to my classroom at home. Before this experience, I wouldn’t ask questions when I didn’t understand something – but UC Berkeley has helped me to come out of my shell and talk more.”

Junle says that SAF was instrumental in helping him reach his goals this year. From providing the opportunity through their network of elite partnerships to dedicated support with housing, insurance, and visa applications, SAF can help students navigate the complexities of studying abroad.

For any students considering applying to UC Berkeley, Junle has one decisive piece of advice:

“Don’t be afraid – just take that step!” he asserts. “I invited so many students who wanted to study at UC Berkeley to apply with me – and they just didn’t do it. But I would recommend this program to anyone now, because I believe you have to experience different learning styles and environments to know which one suits you best.”

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