Alumni Spotlight

Catching up with Billy Shi ’20 in the U.K.
Hi Billy, hope you’ve been well! Tell us what you’ve been up to this past year. 

Undoubtedly this past year was unique. After graduating from UCC, I began to read engineering at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. This place is fantastic, and I had a very rewarding year here despite the pandemic. 

The course itself is intense. Broadly, it is a four-year program aiming toward a master’s degree in engineering. Lectures, labs, supervisions (small-group teaching) and individual study happen for eight weeks per term, where those occupy most of my weekdays from 9 a.m. to about 7 p.m. Then the vacations are also quite packed with projects and revision work. Before I came here, I was told explicitly by many people that I must love engineering to come here. They were absolutely right, and I thank them. Luckily, I do love it and am having a great time.

Outside of the academic world, I joined many societies. One society, Cambridge Development Initiative, is an organization aiming to deliver project outcomes to better the lives of Tanzanian people. I was involved in a project to design ventilation systems to help them with open-fire cooking, which is deeply rooted in local culture. I also was involved in some parachute designing, as part of Cambridge Spaceflight, researching the best possible material and design to land a five-metre-tall rocket from 150 km. This year, I am continuing with both societies and am looking to take on more significant roles.

Last but not the least, for sure, I was employed by Arm, a semiconductor and technology company, to work as a part-time engineer. As part of the systems team, I contributed to data analysis tools and helped improve the performance and debuggability of key platforms.


How was going into university in the thick of a pandemic? Any learnings or particular skills gained from this one-of-a-kind experience? 

Starting at university during the pandemic was quite a learning experience. The learning curve can be steep, but I must say my boarding experience at UCC gave me a good launch. I was already used to living alone and interacting with people from different backgrounds. 

Time management was a skill that got tested a lot last year. Sitting in front of a screen for most of my days was like sitting in front of a giant library of resources and learning opportunities — or sitting in front of a giant gaming machine — depending on how one sees it. Carefully managing my time was something I quickly recognized as a necessity, and luckily my Post-its and Google calendar helped me.

Another skill I learned, particularly during the pandemic, is to be OK with living alone. This means to know how to mentally support myself during downtimes and how to reward myself after achieving a small goal. And this also doesn’t mean to live lonely. I have plenty of friends
here — very close friends — because we’ve shared the same accommodation facilities and are therefore, in public health terms, a household. Baking with the microwave, making a cake in a rice cooker, making dough using a blender —I could go on about our fun kitchen adventures.


How has your time at UCC prepared you for university? 

Tremendously. Time at UCC exposed me to a diverse group of people with diverse ideas. For people who think UCC is perhaps enclosed in a “bubble,” I agree with them partially, but here’s something I also noticed: acknowledging that we are in a “bubble,” that we may be more fortunate than others, and that others may have needs that are different from ours, is a valuable trait of empathy which, unfortunately, many in the broader world do not have. And also unfortunately, those traits of empathy are needed now more than ever. UCC has prepared me for that: for looking out for others.

Academically, the IB has prepared me very well. Although I arrived without knowing some integration formula in maths, I performed better in the end than those who did know, because of the learning skills embedded in me by the IB. I knew how to rise up against unknown knowledge and how to clearly express my ideas in writing. 
 

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? What advice would you give to current UCC students? 

I have received so much advice from different people, from UCC and elsewhere. I consider myself lucky to not be the first to walk the path I walk in most scenarios, because of advice and experience from others. However, my advice to current UCC students is somewhat the opposite: don’t be afraid to walk on a brand-new path.

Examples of this can be small or large, but it comes down to a spirit of trying new things and not being afraid of failures. Don’t avoid writing a science extended essay just because you heard it is hard. Don’t try out only for sport X but not sport Y only because X is popular, but Y is less popular. Don’t be afraid to be a leader just because you aren’t the oldest in your group or because you aren’t given a proper title — neither of those are what true leaders need anyway.


What are you most proud of? 

Most recently, I am proud of myself for somewhat mastering the Canadian English accent and the British one, and being able to quite naturally exchange between the two. It isn’t easy, but I have a diverse group of friends to be able to practise both on a daily basis. For the record though, everyone I met here is friendly and inclusive, so don’t worry if you come to the U.K. without knowing much about British English (just remember chips are called “crisps,” and fries are called “chips”). 


Where do you hope life will take you in the next five to 10 years? 

I would love to have done or be doing two things in the next 10 years (or even longer). First, I would love to experience the life of an engineer, and you are right if you are thinking about a factory with engineers wearing helmets. Just because the software and computer world is emerging so fast doesn’t mean engineers all have to be the fastest keyboard typists. I still wish to get, literally, hands-on experience with engineering in labs or factories, if possible. Second, I would love to teach for a period of time. It has always been fascinating to me that explaining a concept to others makes me learn even more, and I would love to share that dynamic with others. Luckily, I got to experience that through UCC’s very own Horizons summer program, which gave the students and the tutors such a wonderful opportunity to share our knowledge and opinions.


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