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International Student Ava Hu ’23 Finds a Second Home in Syracuse
Growing up in her native city of Beijing, Xiaoman “Ava” Hu ’23 never thought of attending college in the United States—but as she concludes her undergraduate career at Syracuse University, she’s grateful for the experience.
At the suggestion of her mother, Hu applied to a few computer science programs at U.S.-based institutions, hopeful that a STEM major would ensure future professional opportunities.
But, knowing her ambitions weren’t in STEM fields, she also applied to communications schools—including the legendary S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Hu was admitted to the broadcast and digital journalism program at Newhouse and in summer 2019 she arrived in Syracuse, a bit unsure about this new experience abroad but excited for the future.
The transition was rocky at first. “I had trouble fitting in because of the culture gap and other factors,” she says. “In my freshman year, I didn’t go to Bird Library or Schine Student Center or even sit on the Quad when the weather was great. I just stayed in the Newhouse underground and studied and did not get in touch with other students.”
The circumstances of the world around her during her first year at Syracuse did not help Hu feel less alone—a series of bias-related incidents led to outrage and protests in fall 2019 and the coronavirus pandemic shut down the world in early spring 2020. But this confluence of events, ironically, is what prompted her to exit her comfort zone, start making connections on campus and ultimately come to see Syracuse University as her second home.
Going Viral on WeChat
Hu says a turning point came for her in fall 2019 when a post she authored on WeChat, a social media platform popular with international and especially Chinese users, went viral. She wrote about how it feels to be a student in a foreign country at a time when anti-Asian discrimination was on the rise.
“I published the article at 4 a.m. and woke up to a lot of people re-sharing it to their own accounts and agreeing with what I had written,” Hu says of the article, which was ultimately viewed by more than 30,000 WeChat users. “It was huge for me because I realized that even though I was refusing to make connections here, there were so many people who agreed with what I said and who were supportive of what I expressed in my article.”
The experience of writing it and the reaction of her peers was a catalyst for her to emerge further from her shell.
Soon after, she was invited to join WeMedia Lab, a student organization focused on new media, in recognition of her writing abilities. Hu also got more involved in the University’s Center for International Services and gradually became more open to establishing a network of friends, supporters and acquaintances on campus.
Seizing Opportunities to Gain Career Experience
Hu continued flourishing in her sophomore year as a broadcasting student, gaining real-world experience in reporting, editing and anchoring for Newhouse Communications Center (NCC) News, and as a contributor to WeMedia Lab. Opportunities to get involved in more and more aspects of campus life materialized with each decision she made to put herself out there.
During her junior year, Hu became editor-in-chief of WeMedia Lab, which at the time was creating multimedia content for the official Syracuse University WeChat channel. As editor, she oversaw a group of 20 student contributors and felt she was contributing in a positive way to the international student experience at Syracuse. “Basically, all Chinese students at Syracuse University have probably seen at least one of the articles we published, so I really saw this as a way to serve the whole community and help them feel more welcome here,” Hu says.
At the same time, Hu was realizing her passion was less in broadcast journalism and more in social media, marketing and public relations. Junior year, Hu landed an internship with the University’s D’Aniello Institute for Veterans and Military Families working on social media and web content.
That summer, she also interned with Vox Media working on the organization’s Now This News social media channels. These dynamic experiences helped propel Hu toward an internship and then a career with TangoSquared, a digital design and development agency based in Syracuse. She began a full-time position as a marketing specialist in February of this year.
Mentorship and Service
After her viral WeChat post, Hu connected with Wei Gao, associate director for operations and outreach in the University’s Center for International Services. Gao had reached out to offer support, put her in touch with campus resources and help her feel less alone. As this relationship developed, Hu became involved with the center and its multitude of activities welcoming and serving international students.
When Hu was unable to return to China on summer breaks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she collaborated with Gao on WeChat posts highlighting helpful information for incoming international students. She also volunteered as a Welcome Ambassador International, assisting with orientation activities, giving campus tours, helping new students navigate language and cultural barriers, and taking them shopping for supplies.
Hu was also a mentor in the Connections Mentor Program, open to all first-year and second-year undergraduate international students. Mentors like Hu help newer students navigate everything from settling into Syracuse and living with a roommate, to opening a bank account, making friends and balancing academic work with social activities.
“When stepping into my junior year, I realized I was now the older person on campus, and although I’m still an introverted person, I felt I had the responsibility to step further out of my comfort zone and help freshman students,” Hu says. “When I see them, I see myself when I first came to Syracuse. They don’t want to get in touch with the outside world and are struggling with cultural things.”
Hu began mentoring 12 students from China, meeting with them every other week to help navigate their experience at Syracuse and offer support. As she prepares to graduate and embark on her marketing career, she is still in contact with her mentees and considers them some of the most valuable connections she’s made at Syracuse.
As Hu begins her journey from undergraduate student to professional marketer, she offers her advice to incoming students, from China or elsewhere: “There are so many resources and opportunities on this campus. All the professors are so supportive and there was always a way for me to go after what I was trying to achieve. I would recommend students take every opportunity that comes their way, because you never know what it will lead to next,” Hu says.