Conversations with the Class of 2021: Chen Yang

Chen Yang talks about his journey from an industrial town in Central China to earning his PhD in Kinesiology
Chen Yang has earned his PhD in Kinesiology. Owen Egan / Joni Dufour

Convocation is a special time at McGill – but Fall 2021 Convocation might be a little more special than usual. For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, graduating students will actually walk across stage to receive their diplomas and certificates. This, McGill’s first in-person Convocation ceremonies since 2019, will take place at Place des Arts on November 25-26.

But while each graduating student’s destination is the same – PdA’s Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier – their journeys have all been very different.

In honour of this special day, the McGill Reporter spoke to a trio of graduating students, asking them to look back at their time at McGill, the road they took to get here, and what their plans are for the future.

In the first instalment, we speak with Chen Yang, who has earned his PhD in Kinesiology.

Where is your hometown?

My hometown is at a small industrial city called Luoyang, located in central part of China. The district where my home is was made up of several huge heavy-industry factories. The restaurants, schools, hospitals etc. were all owned by the factories. Starting with my grandparent’s generation, everyone you see on the streets there worked at the same factory as coworkers. And when their kids (my parent’s generation) grow up, very few people went to college, they just went to the same factory and became coworkers of their parents.

This situation started to change with my generation, and young people started going to college and started leaving this city for a better life. It has been 15 years since I left home (for high school), but I have been thinking about it all the time.

Tell us about your path to McGill.

I obtained both my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in China, During my Master’s study, I had the chance to go to the University of Michigan for a research exchange program. My supervisor was Canadian, and he was super nice to me. And, according to my lab crews, Canadians are always nice (indeed). This definitely played a role when I was not sure if I wanted to do my PhD in the U.S. or in Canada.

Meanwhile, McGill is just so well known for its outstanding research and reputation. It was definitely my #1 goal. After my contacting my PhD supervisor, I was really lucky to know there might be a chance for me, so I went for it and several months later I was here.

What were your impressions when walking onto campus for the first time?

My first time walking on campus felt unreal. I remember walking through the campus after I got my McGill ID card, I was looking at the students around me and I couldn’t stop smiling. I was so excited, but I also felt a bit nervous. I was excited because I finally made it, and I was going to start my PhD at my dream school. I was nervous because I knew there would be a lot of upcoming challenges in my studies and my life here.

Three favourite places on McGill campus? 

  • McLennan Library
  • McGill gym
  • Thomson House

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during your time here and how did you overcome them?

There have been a lot of challenges during my studies. The cultural difference is the first challenge a lot of international students face here. There is a program for international students called the International Buddy Program by ISS (International Student Society). This helped me, and gave me an idea about what the life would be like at McGill.

I have also made a lot of new friends within the department, through different social clubs at McGill. These friends helped me fit in way faster than I expected.

Another challenge is the language. All the ESL (English as a second language) students have passed the English exam before coming, but studying reading, and academic writing does not feel the same as using your mother tongue. However, the McGill Writing Centre helped me so much. They have multiple courses targeting students of different English levels, and you can choose to focus on improving your writing, presentation, reading skills etc.

Another language challenge is French. Even though McGill is an English university, it is still a good idea to learn some French when you live in Quebec. PGSS (Post Graduate Student Society) offers French courses that improve your daily French, which helps you fit into Quebec quickly.

In terms of school, one of the biggest challenges for a lot of students is getting scholarships. This sometimes can be hard. But with the help of my faculty and lab friends in gathering the application information, and the support from my supervisor, I have won multiple national, provincial scholarships. I was ranked at the first place in my competing section for the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Santé doctoral scholarship.

How did the pandemic impact your studies?

I was back in China when COVID-19 first broke out. It was really scary back then because nobody really understood what was going on. Every city was under lockdown, and I stayed at home as my flight back to Canada was cancelled. I booked another flight for the next morning but it also got cancelled. I kept booking flights and watching them getting cancelled again and again.

I ended up making it back in early March, but the second day after my self-quarantine, Montreal announced that universities would be closed.

It was not easy for everyone back then, but McGill handled it really well. The Faculty of Education and the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education kept students updated on the COVID policy. The students in my lab and my supervisor were meeting on Zoom every week. Our research progressed, but remotely, and we had a lot of fun Zoom activities as well.

Tell us about your Faculty and your fellow PhD students. How important have they been to your overall McGill experience?

As an international student, they are the first group of people I met when I arrived here. They were pretty much my first impression of McGill. And this first impression was really good!

When I started my PhD, the PhD program in our department was an ad hoc PhD program, and this was my first time studying abroad, I had so many questions about everything. I probably bothered them a million times with really stupid questions. But my lab crews, my supervisor and the faculty members were super nice to me, and they answered my questions with patience. I have learned so much about research, Canadian culture, and life lessons from them. I am graduating in one of the first cohorts of first -ever PhD program in our department. I feel really lucky to have had their help and support.

What advice do you have for new students to McGill?

One thing I want to tell the new McGillians, and also the students who are considering applying, is that there will be ups and downs through your studies. But it does not mean that you need to panic. McGill is a big family, I can guarantee you that you will meet new friends here while learning new things and improving your knowledge. The McGill family will support you through the ups and downs, and you will become the best version of yourself.

For the international students like me, there are so many successful McGillians who used to be international students. They are our role models. Please, hang in there and keep pushing yourself. You will make your family proud and, more importantly, make yourself proud.

What are your plans for Convocation? Will you take part in the ceremony? If so, how exciting is it to be able to take that iconic walk across the stage to accept your diploma?

I am really excited for Convocation. This is something I have waited for so long and I am thrilled to know that the ceremony will be in-person. It will be a big moment not just for me, but also for my family.

Unfortunately, my family cannot come because of COVID-19. I am the first person who went to college, and now I am getting my PhD in Canada.

I want to thank my family for always being so supportive of my education and research. They supported me when I felt like I was not good enough at what I was doing. They supported me when I was lost, and didn’t know what I should do. They supported me when their friends had kids around them, but they were always alone back home.

My grandparents’ and my parents’ generations were all workers at the same huge industrial factory. They lived there for their whole life without getting any chance to see other cities. My dad used to tell me “Knowledge changes fate” when I was a kid, and I did not understand it. I thought even the best student would end up working at the factory just like everyone else and no one could ever change fate. I never thought I could have the chance to see the world. I wish my family could be at the ceremony when I’m on stage. I want to make them proud and tell my dad that education really changed my fate.

What’s next for you, both short and long term?

I am going to the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago to continue my research as a postdoc fellow. This rehabilitation hospital has been ranked as the #1 rehab hospital for 31 consecutive years. I will continue my research there and my long-term goal is to conduct practical biomechanics research to help patients, athletes and workers.