For graduating UCS president, Brown community fuels innovation, creates family far from home

As president of Brown’s Undergraduate Council of Students, William Zhou will address the way that listening to others creates community and catalyzes change in Virtual Degree Conferral ceremony remarks on Sunday, May 24.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — When William Zhou decided to attend Brown four years ago, the California native had just one significant reservation. “I’m very close with my family, and I knew that being at a university where I couldn’t go home very often was going to be tough,” he said.

Now, as Zhou — like so many of his Class of 2020 peers — counts down his last days as a Brown undergraduate far from the campus that was largely closed back in March, he finds himself missing a home that, as an incoming first-year student, he didn’t expect to find on College Hill. 

“I really think I found a second family at Brown,” he said.

That second family has taught Zhou, a computer science and economics double concentrator, how active, open listening creates community and spurs innovative collaboration, he said.

“Brown encourages students to prioritize and pursue their passions in ways that make the world better for everyone,” he said. “To do this, we’re taught to stay open to others, to validate their experiences and to share our own to create meaningful dialog.” 

He added: “Being in this community has taught me how to be someone who is a much better listener.”

In remarks to his fellow graduates at the College’s Virtual Degree Conferral ceremony on Sunday, May 24, Zhou — who is president of the Undergraduate Council of Students — will describe how Brown creates an environment in which students find their purpose by listening to others.

Zhou first noticed this relationship between dialog and discovery as a first-year student taking Social Entrepreneurship, a course that teaches students how community-driven ventures can trigger transformative social change.

“There, I learned that identifying a problem — and really understanding its root causes — is at the foundation of a successful solution,” he said. 

Zhou recalls one case study in particular — on the problem of overfishing in Madagascar — that helped him realize how listening to others plays a critical role in finding purpose. It was easy to blame overfishing on the fishermen themselves, he said. But interviews with the fishermen revealed that the problem was more complicated: “The fishermen knew overfishing was an issue, but they didn’t have the resources or tools to fish more sustainably.” The solution — to provide them with educational programs and social support — spoke directly to the fishermen’s concerns. 

Analyzing this case study — and discussing it with peers whose perspectives were different from his own — helped Zhou to understand how to approach challenges by listening to others, he said.

I really think I found a second family at Brown.

William Zhou 2020 graduate and UCS president

It was also in this course that Zhou first learned of Bain and Company, the Boston-based consulting firm where he will begin working after graduation. 

“At its core, consulting is about working with people to try to understand a problem they are facing and come up with a solution together,” Zhou said. “I’m really looking forward to using what I’ve learned about listening to find purpose to help start-ups, established companies and social impact ventures solve problems.”

During his four years at Brown, Zhou applied that approach in a number of leadership contexts. Three years as a student leader of the Mieklejohn Peer Advisor program, Zhou said, “have taught me so much about being open-minded when helping others navigate a challenge — and supporting advisees on the paths that they choose for themselves.” 

And in his work first as a member, and now as president of the Undergraduate Council of Students (UCS), he has sought innovative ways to address difficulties disclosed by his peers.

For example, two years ago, UCS learned separately about two student concerns: Sustainability advocates were concerned about the amount of dorm supplies that were thrown away during move-out each spring, while other students were finding it challenging to cover moving costs and purchase dorm supplies.

To address both concerns, the council partnered with the Office of Sustainability and the Undocumented, First-Generation College and Low-Income Student Center to create FLi into Brown, an annual event that enables departing students to donate dorm supplies to their peers. 

“These were two seemingly disparate problems, but by working together and listening to what our peers were saying, we were able to come up with a joint solution,” Zhou said.

Faced with the current public health crisis, UCS has shifted its focus to promoting initiatives that support the needs arising from the pandemic. 

“On the Undergraduate Council of Students, we have had a lot of members working to advocate for many things — whether that’s increased food resources for students still on campus or more emergency funds for students facing financial hardship because of the pandemic,” Zhou said. “It highlights just how much people at Brown prioritize community care.”

Through steadfast support of students during this unprecedented global challenge, even as they have scattered across the world, members of the Brown community have proven their resilience and resourcefulness, Zhou said. 

“We’ll encounter many challenges in the future, some personal and others that we’ll experience together,” he said. “We now know that, even though we’re all going to leave College Hill, we can still stay connected and supportive of one another.”