After Selina Zhang graduates from Carolina on Dec. 15, she’ll start her career at one of the biggest, most influential companies in the world: Amazon.
Soon, she will be a software engineer at the tech giant, but the story of how she got there isn’t what you might expect.
Zhang came to Carolina intent on becoming a doctor. Since both of her parents work in the medical field, it seemed like an obvious choice.
But by the middle of her junior year at UNC-Chapel Hill — several semesters into her pre-med track — something kept nagging at her. She was still thinking about the introductory computer science class she took as an elective during her first year.
Zhang took the class to diversify her resume and to strengthen her medical school applications. And, Zhang admits, she wasn’t sure she would like computer science at all. But there was something about working with computers that excited her in a way that pre-med classes didn’t.
“I’d coded the quadratic formula on my calculator, so I thought it would be no issue, but it was actually pretty hard. There was a steep learning curve,” she said, “but I really liked solving puzzles.”
The joy of the challenge kept bringing her back to computer science. And just before the second semester of her junior year, Zhang made a risky move: She switched her major and left medicine behind.
“When I first joined the major, I had zero friends and didn’t know anybody, but they very quickly adopted me,” she said. “They were much further along in their careers than I was because I was still pretty behind at this point. But they really helped me not just catch up, but excel.”
Zhang then became a teaching assistant for the course that changed her trajectory three years before. Among 60 other TAs for assistant professor Kris Jordan’s Computer Science 110 course, she found a true passion for coding and a network of friends who understood how her mind worked.
A former Carolina varsity gymnast, Zhang said coding is a lot like perfecting a new skill in her sport.
“In gymnastics, with a skill, you have to know exactly what’s wrong and how to fix it. When you’re coding, you think the same way,” she said. “And kind of like gymnastics, you’re learning how to be a better person, not a better coder.”
When she heads out to Seattle after graduation, Zhang said she’ll have the chance to reconnect with many of the friends she met as part of the computer science TA staff. Several of those friends work at Amazon, while others are at Microsoft or tech startups in the city.
“It will be cool to be in that area and just have that network,” she said. “I think what Kris [Jordan] has done with the 110 team is something very special. You’re making friends that you can continue to network with even in your post-grad life.”
Because of those friends, she said, she now has the opportunity to pursue a career in a field she loves.
“I definitely think the big thing that Carolina offers is community,” Zhang said. “Once you find that community, it really changes your college experience.”
Although moving out west and starting a new job sounds a little intimidating, there’s one thing Zhang said she can always hold on to.
“No matter where you go,” she said, “Carolina never leaves you.”