Reflections from Abroad: Meilun Zhou

Meilun Zhou, a senior majoring in computer engineering, participated in two semester-long study abroad programs. Zhou gained unique experiences, such as hiking through the sandstone columns of Zhangjiajie, China.

Mississippi State University offers students many opportunities to expand horizons and generate new experiences. Studying abroad represents one such opportunity, allowing students to enjoy another culture and observe other perspectives.  

Meilun Zhou, a senior majoring in computer engineering, has completed two study abroad experiences during his time at MSU, one in China and one in France. Both trips were semester exchanges that involved a mandatory language course to help students adjust.

Zhou discovered the advertisements for his first-semester exchange in Allen Hall. He said a rough semester at MSU made the study abroad posters and brochures seem more appealing. Since he was born in China and raised by parents who spoke Mandarin at home, he leaned towards China for his first semester abroad. 

"For me, picking China (Beijing Institute of Technology) was pretty easy because I was like, if I travel somewhere for the semester, it would be nice if I could speak the language," Zhou said.

Zhou described his experiences in China and discussed the industry and air quality. He then mentioned his favorite parts of the trip.

"Seeing all of the monuments (was) really cool. It's a huge city, and you could spend, like, a long time there for all of the individual historical things. The public transport is pretty nice. Also, their version of Uber was really popular and was kind of cheap," Zhou said.

On the topic of food, Zhou said the cafeteria at the Beijing University reminded him of MSU due to the multiple food stations; however, the food differed from dishes at MSU. Despite this, they were still familiar to Zhou.

"With the food, it was really easy for me not to feel homesick because that's what I would eat at home," Zhou said.

The differences due to censorship and regulation in regards to website access and banking were noticeable, such as a lack of access to Google and Facebook, yet Zhou noted there were still some positives, such as the convenience of only using one economic or banking system.

"One nice thing of all of it being integrated was the money transfer was really easy," Zhou said."So (there were) some benefits to the regulation, and then some drawbacks."

Zhou did some exploratory traveling while in China. He traveled not only to visit family but also to experience some of the natural wonders.

"It was probably the farthest I went in China, south. It was a city called Zhangjiajie," Zhou said, showing an image of the scenery on his cell phone. "It's where 'Avatar,' the movie with the blue people, it's where that movie had the scene with the floating mountains. It's where that inspiration came from."

Zhou made many connections while meeting new people in China, and this is the reason he decided to study in France with the French American Exchange (FAME) program for his second semester studying abroad.

"The reason for choosing France, the second time, was because I met a group of French people at the Chinese university. They were studying abroad at that university. I became really good friends with them, and we talked a lot about Europe and just being able to travel in general. So, they convinced me to go," Zhou said.

Zhou spoke of his favorite parts of France which included some food traditions.

"Bakeries were really prevalent, and that's something I really miss here. These kind of mom-and-pop bakeries. You would have one, like every two blocks. Probably as often as we have McDonald's, they would have a dessert bakery or baguette bakery," Zhou said. 

Zhou said some adjustment was necessary for his time in France; however, that adjustment is what allowed him to truly slow down and enjoy his experience.

"I think going to Europe and being able to see the lifestyle is really great because it really gets you to slow down and think about the world as a whole. I would like to retire in Europe. The people there, it's a lot slower. The pace of life is so much slower," Zhou remarked.

Professor Carine Sabouraud-Muller is the academic coordinator of the program at École Nationale Supérieure de l'Électronique et de ses Applications, the university where Zhou studied while in France. Sabouraud-Muller spoke about Zhou's dedication to his coursework and readiness to travel.

"Some courses were challenging, but he worked seriously and passed. He has been able to adapt to the French education system and work in a new environment. He has gained self-confidence, and as many other FAME students, Meilun has also seized the opportunity to travel in France and in Europe during the semester," Sabouraud-Muller said.

Both Sabouraud-Muller and Zhou mentioned the differences in the vacation breaks in France versus in the United States. After every six weeks of class, students receive two full weeks of break.

"I went to, I think, 11 different countries while in France because of the two-week breaks. It was fantastic. I was also really lucky because my roommates in China were from Hungary, Germany and Italy," Zhou said.

During his travels in Europe, Zhou reunited with those same friends who he met while studying in Beijing in their respective countries. Each gave him a well-rounded tour of their own countries. Experiences ranged from normal tourist attractions in the capital cities to invitations from Zhou's colleagues to visit their hometown for a traditional, homemade meal. He made additional meaningful connections with students he met while in France.

"It was a really good mix of people from the US, and that was the first time I had interacted, like, so closely with all of these American people since there were no Americans during my semester in China. All of us, we would struggle together," Zhou said. "For spring break, I think I'm going to Toronto with them to meet up with the people from Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Detroit."

Spending time abroad has impacted how Zhou views his future.

"I think going out and being able to like have an education in a different country, see how they educate people and also being able to even see career fields there (helps). So, I got to go to, like, a career-expo in both countries, and it helped me get perspective about what I want to do," Zhou said.

Zhou passed on some advice he got from a friend about traveling and getting away from what is comfortable.

"The hardest step is actually the first step out your own door," Zhou said.

Zhou also expressed his gratitude for the opportunities.

"I think (MSU does) a good job of pushing the study abroad programs, and I'm pretty grateful that they've had these two-semester exchanges that I could go on. I definitely want to thank Mississippi State for giving me these opportunities," Zhou said.

For those desiring a program for a shorter term, a variety of options are offered from MSU. Annie Carr, Study Abroad Coordinator at MSU, encouraged students to look into different study abroad opportunities while they are at MSU.

"It gives students the ability to come back to Starkville with an open mind and better understanding about cultures around the world. College is the perfect time for students to go abroad because it is affordable, looks great on a resume and it makes you stand out in job interviews. Students may not have another chance to spend several weeks or months abroad once they graduate and are in the workforce," Carr said.

MSU's Office of Study Abroad offers over 1,000 programs in more than 80 different countries around the globe. Programs exist for all majors and classifications. Any interested parties can attend one of the bi-weekly interest sessions held at 8:15 a.m. Tuesdays and 3:30 p.m. on Thursdays in the Colvard Student Union, suite 220.

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