Yuliang "Bill" Ding

Yuliang "Bill" Ding is a biomedical engineering major from China. He has made the most of his time at Case Western Reserve University by getting involved in campus organizations and becoming an Orientation Leader. During his second year, Bill expanded his global perspective even further by studying abroad in Uganda. He shares how his experiences have impacted his career plans and offers advice for other international students and those interested in studying abroad.

How did you decide to study at CWRU?

Before coming to the U.S., I was often fascinated by the studying atmosphere at medium-to-small size universities and the American college life. CWRU’s size was a great fit for me. It allowed me to network across the entire campus and make sustainable connections. 

Besides the awesome academic environment at CWRU (as a research university), I also like the city of Cleveland. Born and raised in Shanghai, China, I was so used to living in a crowded city, that I wanted to try something new and have my college experience in a relatively smaller and quieter city. Cleveland is a good fit - I love this forest city!  The smaller city size (compared to Shanghai) also enabled me to get civically engaged and learn more about the community. 

What is your favorite thing about studying at CWRU so far?

This might be a broad answer: my favorite part of CWRU is its wide variety of opportunities. From volunteering and on-campus research, to community outreach and studying abroad, CWRU offers almost everything you can think of. As a biomedical engineering student, I am always interested in seeing how modern technologies can be applied to studying traditional Chinese medicine, as well as to helping underserved populations around the world. With these passions, I joined a research lab at the School of Medicine in my Freshman year, and studied abroad in Uganda (through a CWRU engineering/anthropology class) during my second year. As these experiences broadened my horizons and helped me find my career passion, I was also amazed by the access to the various resources and opportunities at CWRU. 

What obstacles did you think you would encounter when you were planning to study in the U.S.? If you did encounter them, how did you overcome those obstacles?

To me, logistical challenges such as finding apartments and working on campus were the ones that I thought about before coming to CWRU. I went to a boarding school before college, so I was lucky enough to be somewhat prepared to live far from home. As I finished my second year and moved off-campus, I started encountering the challenges mentioned above. I had to find an apartment off campus in my junior year. Luckily, CWRU provided me a number of platforms to look for housing opportunities, and through reaching out to my network, I learned what to look for in housing, and how to communicate with the landlord to make the deal. In addition, I worked as a Teaching Assistant in my junior fall semester. Through attending training and self-teaching, I learned how to submit my working applications and file my tax returns. These experiences helped me to be more independent as a young adult, and I am grateful for the resources and assistance that CWRU offers. 

Why did you decide to study abroad?

People might ask, since I am already studying abroad as an international student, why do I “study abroad” again? In my opinion, the passion of wanting to experience a different culture and live my life from another perspective should never wane, regardless of how many countries I travelled to. With this enthusiasm, plus my initial goal of utilizing biomedical engineering technologies to help people across the world, I decided to join a CWRU study abroad program on “Global Health Issues in Uganda” (ENGR 350U / ANTH 300), where I worked in an 8-student team and brought design prototypes to Uganda to help address global health issues. 

What was the best part of your study abroad experience?

There are so many… I think one of my favorite experiences was the safari trip to Uganda national park. The view was fantastic. I was able to see places that I would have only seen on a TV show before. From hippos to zebras, I had the privilege of watching them only meters away in the safari car, and enjoyed the lowest gravity on the Earth - at the equator! 

Did your experience adjusting to studying in the U.S. as an international student help you adjust to your study abroad experience?

I believe so! Studying in the U.S. as an international student opened my eyes to the cultural diversity, which helped me become more open-minded when travelling in Uganda. It is also interesting to learn about how both China and the U.S. collaborates with Uganda - sometimes, people from different countries might have varying opinions on international policies, which was also fascinating to learn about. 

As part of your study abroad program, you were able to work with students from a university in Uganda, what was that experience like?

The global collaboration between CWRU and MAK (Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda) was more than just fabulous. MAK students and CWRU travelers worked together on prototype development, interviewed healthcare workers together, and lived under the same roof. When traveling in Luwero (a small district on the north side of Kampala), I had the honor to live with a MAK biomedical engineering student in the same dorm. We shared our thoughts about global health design, had jackfruit (a local fruit) together, and played soccer as well. The friendship was built literally within seconds, and we have been in touch since our study abroad trip in spring 2019. 

Your study abroad program focused on creating sustainable solutions to health care challenges in Uganda. What was it like to have the opportunity to meet and work with the end users and people who would benefit from the work you did here at CWRU?

The spring break trip to Uganda has taught me how to evaluate feedback and analyze data critically. My most important “take home message” is to think carefully about the positions of people who give feedback. It is important to note that Ugandan administrators’ comments may weigh less than health care workers’ advice, as the latter are the ones who do the outreach and use our prototypes. In addition, working with end users in Uganda taught me to be an active listener and critical thinker. When interviewing local healthcare workers for feedback, I realized that they tended to be polite and gave compliments, but a positive comment did not always mean our design was the best fit for their clinical settings. Carefully analyzing interviewees' responses, we learned to tailor our design based on local manufacturability. Serving in a different country, I learned to appreciate cultural variances and not to have experience-based pre-assumptions.

How has your experience as an international student in two locations changed the way you think about the world? 

Traveling to the U.S. and Uganda taught me to not rely on single stories, and opened my eyes to the diversity. When in China and the U.S., I sometimes learn about the shortages in resources in Uganda, which made me think that Ugandan people might have always been living a challenging and sad life. However, it was not until I travelled to Uganda did I notice that my assumptions were biased: Ugandan friends had their own enthusiastic culture, and with close connections with WHO and UNESCO, Uganda is also rapidly developing its healthcare system, aiming to achieve herd immunity. People’s passions are contagious. Reflecting on my international student experience, I learned to avoid implicit biases, and to keep a positive mindset when viewing the world.  

What are your career plans, and how do you think these international experiences will help you in your career?

In the future, I wanted to become a healthcare worker in the U.S., and possibly help the world through medical mission trips. This international experience in Uganda has influenced how I think about global health collaborations. Having the opportunity to bring engineering designs to address health issues on the other side of the world, I learned more about the culture and health care system in a country other than China and the U.S., and developed a long lasting relationship with Uganda college students. On the other hand, I also saw the negative aspects of global health work. In Uganda, lack of medical resources and not enough international support still lead to potential harm and infections. As travelers, our visits could have disrupted patients’ privacies, while we might have only focused on getting our results for the class. We could have brought some additional medical  supplies for these hospitals, so we can at least do something for them in return.

What advice would you give to other international students considering studying at CWRU?

CWRU is an unsung champion. People might think that CWRU is a small campus in a relatively small city, compared to other metropolitans. However, as an old Chinese saying goes, a sparrow might be small, but it has all its vital organs. CWRU might be smaller (and maybe hence less popular) than other large universities, but it has all the resources you need. A small-to-medium campus size also makes CWRU like a big family. The individuals you met in classes in the morning might also be your teammates in running practice in the afternoon. Such extensive connections are not easily found in large universities, and as a Shanghainese guy, I truly enjoy the time at CWRU. 

One more thing to (always) advocate for: CWRU is also one of the greatest places to study biomedical engineering and get hands-on healthcare experiences. Throughout the past few years at CWRU, I was able to find my passion in healthcare, and to prepare for my graduate/professional education post college. 

What advice would you give to students considering studying abroad?

Be well-prepared for the study abroad trips, but also, be open to the culture and everything new! As a biomedical engineering student, I thought the trip to Uganda was simply a way to help populations in another country through global health designs, but through friendship building and fieldwork interviews, I gained much more in return.