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Chinese Immigrant-Rhodes Scholar - 2003-12-19

The Rhodes Scholarship for study at Oxford University in England is one of the most prestigious scholarships offered in the United States. This year, nine hundred sixty-three students from three hundred sixty-six American colleges and universities applied. Thirty-two students were selected to receive the scholarship -- one of them a young immigrant from China who came to this country barely four and a half years ago. Here is his story today on New American Voices.

Twenty-year-old Wen Shi seems a typical American college student with his brushed-back crew cut, rimless glasses, Detroit Redwings sweatshirt and easy manner. But not so typically, in October he’ll become a Rhodes Scholar, off to Oxford University for three years to study molecular oncology.

“The goal of my research is that if we can somehow cut off the blood supply to tumors then we can starve out the tumors without killing any other normal cells, and cancer in this way can be manageable in the long term like heart disease or high blood pressure.”

Wen Shi came to the United States in 1999 to join his father, a computer salesman living in Michigan. The elder Shi had emigrated from Beijing in 1985 when Wen was three years old, looking for a better future for himself and his son. Wen Shi says that he would have gladly come to America earlier, but his grandparents, who raised him, didn’t want to let him go.

“I always knew that I was going to come here and to, like, live here for my life, and I’ve always been preparing for this experience since a young age. I was hoping to get used to this new experience and this new culture as quick as possible, and then just do well academically and socially and just get integrated into the society.”

Enrolling in high school in Michigan, Wen Shi found his classmates to be tolerant and accepting. He says the school did not have many immigrants, but it was a diverse place with students of different ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds, willing to welcome newcomers such as Wen Shi.

“I was actually expecting to have at least some form of discrimination from my classmates or other people I met here, but surprisingly enough there was virtually none. The people were so nice and helpful, and my classmates were showing me around the school, and the teachers were giving me extra explanation for the stuff I didn’t understand, and I had some good neighbors and friends – and that was somewhat unexpected, actually.”

The only hurdle that he had to overcome, Wen Shi says, was English. He had taught himself the language in China, but still had difficulty reading a lot and writing essays in English for his social studies and humanities classes. But he took some classes in English as a Second Language, and by the time he finished high school two years later, he had accumulated enough college credits to complete the four-year university program at Johns Hopkins in just three years. Wen Shi says he chose Johns Hopkins because it is a well-known research university, and also because he received a Bloomberg scholarship, which covers an entire course of study at Johns Hopkins. Wen Shi majored in biology, and worked part-time assisting in cancer research at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He was also very active in extracurricular activities.

“The two main focuses of my extracurricular activities are community service and the promotion of diversity. In terms of community service, I’ve just received so much help from the people around me since I came here, and I feel that it’s almost like an obligation to pay back. So for example I help tutor English to other immigrants, and I also helped found a sexual education program for incarcerated youth in Maryland’s juvenile justice system. I have been involved in a program called SEED, which is an acronym for Students Educating and Empowering for Diversity. We do workshops for Hopkins students and staff in the different awareness issues for diversity, such as classism, sexism, homophobia, racism, and there’s some amazing people on the team and I really enjoy working with them, and I really enjoy talking about these issues with Hopkins students and staff.”

In his four and a half years in America, Wen Shi has been focused on his academic and volunteer work. He says he has had no time for dating -- romance would be a distraction at this point in his life. He has some advice for other young immigrants planning to come to America seeking a new life.

“I would think they should try to both keep their heritage and be open-minded in terms of seeking help and taking advantage of opportunities, and trying different life-styles and opportunities that are available here. So both have a very solid, like, moral standards, and also open up to different opportunities and seek help from different people and don’t be afraid to just take risks and try different things. And believe in yourself, that’s the most important.”

Wen Shi sees the Rhodes Scholarship and the opportunity of studying at Oxford as setting him on the path to achieving his life’s goal -- combining his interest in medical research and passion for community service by making a substantial contribution to finding a cure for cancer.

English Feature #7-38161 Broadcast December 22, 2003