Note to past/future me’s, from post-first-semester-of-college me

You/I/we did it! Now I have some reflecting to do.     Haha, literally, some reflections. ^ *ba dum tss* As fun as it would be to plop down this brief, reflective photo essay with zero context and leave it at that: the above was taken in the midst of my finals week, the fateful culmination of what would…
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December 27, 2016

You/I/we did it! Now I have some reflecting to do.



Me, feeling like Pepe because I had finals at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Friday.



Haha, literally, some reflections. ^ *ba dum tss*

As fun as it would be to plop down this brief, reflective photo essay with zero context and leave it at that: the above was taken in the midst of my finals week, the fateful culmination of what would soon be nearly four months at Washington State University, in the eastern side of the state, away from home (and the sun) in southern California.

Fun and games aside, I just got my final grades for this semester, and I’m content with how I did not only in my classes, but also with my involvement with the newspaper and Asian/Pacific Islander community, the friends I’ve made by setting aside initial discomforts and introducing myself to (usually super cool) people, this general ~adulting~ thing (y’know, laundry, doctor’s appointments, voting, budgeting, grocery shopping, making my own decisions, etc), all of which were super scary at first but ultimately experiences I learned a lot from.


To senior-year me, to other high school peeps reading this: being a freshman again is GREAT, all-caps necessary—in what other place can you develop and hone in on your unbridled enthusiasm for certain topics/hobbies/activities with other folks interested in the same thing?

I tried to do as much as was humanly possible. I wanted to do it all (cue Sharpay’s lunchtime solo) —take the scenic route but also briskly speed walk through this semester. #FOMO (fear of missing out) was so real, the first few weeks especially, but throughout the semester as well. Saying no was hard, whether it was to an enticing newspaper assignment or an offer to go out to grab a scoop of ice cream. Three-fourths through the semester, I felt burned out trying to handle extracurricular activities, classes, friends, and self-care, and found that allowing myself to be vulnerable to people I trusted kept me grounded as I decided to set aside time to take care of myself, recover, and continue working towards the goals I set.

I’m happy to say I exceeded my expectations this semester, doing well in more demanding classes while adjusting to life in college as a quasi-independent baby adult. Sometimes, I think to myself, “man, I probably could have studied more,” but at the same time, I also don’t regret those 3 a.m. conversations I had with friends, floor mates, study buddies, or the extra time I spent interviewing campus activists during election season, or the entire weekend I spent with high schoolers encouraging them to pursue higher education, or spontaneously going out to the premiere of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” or going on a mini-road trip to Idaho to hike to hot springs.


Idaho’s Jerry Johnson hot springs were worth the 5+ hour drive.

Balancing it all feels like some tightrope walk I’m surprised hasn’t yet ended up in falling into the net below!

This semester was empowering and validating; I needed space to grow on my own, and this semester was exactly that for me. Finding myself away (like, away away) from home for the first time, a reoccurring theme I was reminded of was the iron will of immigrants, in carving out their lives in foreign lands, the iron will of my parents in wanting to instill within me good habits and the ways it drove me crazy growing up, and then, how that iron will was what I hoped to channel in all of my academic/professional/social/personal pursuits.


I think this warrants its own category. The air hurts my face because it’s so cold. I have yet to master the art of layering. During dead week, I made my first snowball! And snow angel! And also went sledding! And didn’t slip and fall on the ground (unlike these unlucky folks), which is now slippery with ice! And the sun sets at like 4 p.m. which is insane! So many exclamatory statements!

Californians be like:

Snowscape...where are we? ??

A photo posted by jessica zhou (@itsjesszhou) on

Bravery > Perfection

For reference: your girl really loves reading and writing. In a really bad dream, I’ve flunked out of school and confirmed my worst fears that I’m not cut out to be an engineering student. In a really great dream, I’ve graduated, relatively unscathed by the classes required of computer science majors, and working on something at the intersection of technology, people, civic engagement, and stories.

STEM classes didn’t intrigue me in high school as much as humanities and social science classes did, and so I was surprised to learn that behind all of the magic in computer science is math; it’s a mathematical science. That being said, I spent the most time studying for and felt the most engaged with CptS 121, my program design class. Grinding out programming assignments and working with a group was incredibly encouraging, reaffirming how essential (and fun) it is to have gal pals/friends in general within CS/engineering.  Those brief moments marveling over those elegant algorithms capable of handling complex tasks, talking about niche interests, like the potential in machine learning and artificial intelligence, learning about seniors’ design projects, all come back to humble and remind me that the possibilities in computer science are exciting and boundless. I owe so many thanks to my professor, TA, study group, and class buddies, who encouraged, helped, and supported me along the way through all of the inevitable syntax errors and crashed programs. I learned to embrace failure as an important part of the learning process.


Front-page article I wrote about a student protest against DAPL.

Thirty-something articles later, I am done with my first semester as the diversity reporter for my school newspaper! Although I was still learning the lay of the land and accustoming myself to campus culture as a pretty clueless freshman, I hit the ground running, reporting on marginalized and underrepresented groups/individuals on campus. Unlike in high school, students read the publication, and often engaged in dialogue sparked by articles that ran in the paper. As an engineering major, I found it difficult at times to take on last-minute breaking news  when I’d already blocked out that time to study and finish assignments. The unpredictability and messiness kept me on my toes and I had to adapt to quickly changing situations. Whether it was the Trump Wall rally/ counter protest, a board-game-loving volunteer in the international student center, gender-inclusive restrooms, or researchers who helped develop several of the potatoes McDonald’s uses in its french fry production, there was something interesting to write about.  I got a healthy dose of the “small town” daily newspaper hustle writing for The Daily Evergreen, which I feel is best described as an exhausting, but rewarding labor of love.

Home (?)


Tbh, wheat fields.

I remember first setting foot in Pullman in May as a prospective student and remembering the slight feeling of terror when it seemed like all there was for miles on end were wheat fields and potato farms. Seven months and who-knows-how-many cups of coffee later, I’m grateful to say the place has grown on me and feels very much like home, thanks to the other people I’ve found in this here wheat field/perpetual Christmas tree lot of a state.

Home is a feeling I get when I’m sitting on the floor of a friend’s kitchen eating a simple meal of tilapia and steamed rice after weeks of pasta/pizza/hamburgers/sandwiches, or when I’m helping prep fried chicken/snapping off the rough ends of string beans to be cooked for dinner (as you can see, a lot of these revolve around food).

It’s also the feeling when I’m celebrating/commiserating with friends across the country via social media. Although not physically present, staying in contact with them throughout my semester made it feel like they were still with me every step of the way. It’s the feeling I get when I step into my residence hall, with its questionable elevator and garish fluorescent lights, drafty shower rooms, and constantly breaking-down laundry machines. It’s the sense of familiarity and comfort I feel when I stand in the hallway catching up with a friend when our RA joined in, and another friend says hi as she passes by on her way to her room.


Do you see the look of terror masked as amusement on my face?

The Asian-Pacific Islander student center, with its friendly and familiar faces, is my go-to place on campus to relax in between classes. At the end of the day, it’s anywhere, whether in certain places or with certain people, I feel comfortable letting my guard down. I’m a guest in my old bedroom, since my sister moved in after I left for college, but I still feel very much at home, picking up right where I left off with my family and friends.

For me, college has been a magical place to pursue my interests while discovering new ones while reconfiguring my idea of the kind of person I strive to be and the contributions I hope to make over and over through the countless kind, talented, intelligent, and thoughtful people I get to meet during my time here.


This photo is horizontal because as a brilliant poet of our time, Drake, once lamented, it feels like the only time you see [insert appropriate noun here] is when you turn your head to the side and look at [same noun here] differently. My perception of WSU and Pullman, WA changed drastically during my time there.

My senior quote is from “The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath”: “Yes, God, I want to talk to everybody as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night.” I had unexpectedly introspective conversations with people I’ve met in my residence hall, student organizations, and classes. As for sleeping in an open field, I went camping for the first time… and eastern Washington is home to many a wheat field, so I’m working on making that part happen. I have road tripped west to Seattle for Thanksgiving break and, I have walked freely at night coming back from late night study sessions in the engineering library.

Or from the newsroom after meeting with an editor for article revisions. Or after a club meeting. At some point, if it’s snowing, I’ll pause to watch flakes illuminated by lamplight (#californiansbelike). Usually, it’s quiet enough that I can get lost in my thoughts, half mental-teeth-chattering and wishing I was back in SoCal, half in wonder of my surroundings, blanketed in white.

A year ago, as I was finishing up the last of my college applications, I had my heart set on an urban university, in California or New York. Although WSU is in the middle of nowhere, it’s the people who make an otherwise no-frills place magical, it’s the opportunities I’m so privileged to have that challenge me to be better than I was before, it’s the progress I’ve watched myself make as a writer, programmer, student, and person that make me realize how happy I am to be, for a rare moment, exactly where I want to be.

💖, Jess

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