Carnegie Mellon University

Director's List Scholarship Winner | Yao (Paul) Wei

After graduating from Tongji University in Shanghai, Paul decided to take a small break before taking the next step along his career path and indulge his desire to see more of the world. He was in Bangkok, Thailand in the spring of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to reevaluate his immediate plans. His parents, one of whom is a doctor, recommended he remain in Thailand and self-isolate. Taking his parents resulted in an unintended and unusual gap year. 

During a difficult time for many, and certainly more so for someone stranded far from home, Paul made the most of his circumstances by practicing his English language skills; working remotely as an intern for United Dimensions Technologies, building a contactless health monitoring system for nursing homes that uses AI and responsive web design; and applying to the MSE–Scalable Systems (MSE–SS) program. “When I graduated from university with a bachelor’s degree, I felt I needed more in-depth training on how to manage a large software project, not just programming. With a dream of freely traveling around the world also in mind, a master’s degree from a top-tier university was definite to go for.”   

“I earned a bachelor’s degree in software engineering so it seemed natural for me to level up my skills with a master’s degree in software engineering. CMU was appealing to me because of the reputation, and the MSE-SS was attractive because there were several topics [in the curriculum] — for example, microservices and distributed systems — that were interesting to me.”

When the semester started in August of 2020, travel restrictions were still in place making it impossible for Paul, like many in his cohort, to travel to Pittsburgh. Interaction with his peers was limited to time spent in an online classroom. But Paul had a strong interest in learning about his peers and their experiences, which led him to organize informal gatherings online where everyone could share their thoughts and skills with one another. 

In the spring semester a leadership role in the MSELi (MSE Leadership initiative) opened up, but it didn’t occur to Paul to volunteer to serve. “Originally I thought that it wasn’t possible for me to take on (the MSEli leadership role) because I thought that I have lots of classmates that are better than me. I come from a small town, English is my second language and I’m still finding it challenging. ” But others in the program thought otherwise. Peter Kolenich, the instructor for the communications class at the time, and former MSE Senior Programs Administrator, Karen Fleischman, as well as his fellow classmates encouraged Paul to take on a leadership role in the organization. “I wasn’t expecting that people would think that I was suitable.” 

In his role as vice president of the MSELi, he finds himself doing many of the same things he had done on his own: organizing social events for his peers in which they can exchange ideas and skills. 

This summer, Paul had another boost to his self confidence when he was awarded the Director’s Scholarship. “I learned a big lesson: don’t look down on myself. I often thought, ‘Wow, my classmates are so great and I need to keep up with them.’ I think I underestimated myself. [Winning the award has made me realize] that everyone has differences and there is no need to be good at everything, and that if I participate more, people will see my shining points.”

When he graduates in December, Paul would like to enter the workforce and continue to hone his skills. “The MSE–SS program is very practical, especially with the summer internship built in; from my internship experience this summer, I found real-life examples and they were very helpful to connect with the confusing theories taught in classrooms. One of my dreams is to eventually build robust and efficient software systems for doctors.” 

Paul’s plans for the future also include travel. At the top of his wish list is Seattle. “I'd like to meet in person the people I worked with during my [summer] internship at Outreach. It was a fantastic experience. The team I joined assigned me to an important project implementing and deploying pricing and packaging a microservice in Go using Amazon EKS and DynamoDB. It was on their plan but they could not afford the time to make it a priority. I felt valued. I put a lot of effort into [the project] and felt like I achieved something great.”