Getting the best of both worlds: CMU exchange student Lena Li on her Qatar experience

We sat down with Lena Li, a junior from Carnegie Mellon University’s main campus in Pittsburgh, who spent the spring 2019 semester at the Qatar campus as an exchange student. Lena is majoring in information systems and human computer interaction.

CMUQ: Why did you choose to study information systems?

I wanted something that was interdisciplinary and connected my interests in technology and business, as well the humanities. Information systems seemed like it would be a good blend of all three. I really enjoy the curriculum because you get to customize it according to your interests.


If you were to talk to high school kids about going into information systems, what would you tell them?

That’s actually a very interesting question because in my design class we’re working on a project that is targeting high school students. Often people don’t really know what information systems is and what it entails. I interviewed an incoming student to the Pittsburgh campus and her impression was that the program is only math and computer science. Talking to her made me realize that we need to communicate that our curriculum is structured to accommodate students as individuals and we encourage them to explore interests beyond the scope of information systems.


How have you been able to shape your degree?

I really like the humanities and I’ve always been interested in the way culture affects the digital transformation in different countries. After taking the digital transformation class at CMU-Q, I decided to examine how e-commerce and social media affect the fashion industry in China. I’m really excited because it blends my interests in both the humanities and technology.


How did you find out about CMU-Q?

I have a friend who studied at CMU-Q for his semester abroad—this is back in 2016—and he told me about his great experience here. I decided to look into it more in depth, so I learned more on the website and met with the study abroad office. I applied and before I knew it, I was pretty much set and ready to go


Had you been to the Middle East before?

This is my first time. I didn’t know what to expect, but everyone here was super welcoming, so warm and hospitable.


What were your first impressions of CMU-Q and the Education City campus?

Coming out of the airport I was a little nervous, but then I met Elizabeth (the international student services coordinator) and when we got to campus, I was just so stunned by all the architecture. In the dorms, I met people from three different countries on the first night. It really gave me a global perspective.


Have you done any travelling since you have been here?

I actually just loved exploring Doha and staying local. For spring break, I was welcomed by a Qatari friend who took me out to Katara and the Pearl and I had Qatari food for the first time. It was a lovely experience and a great staycation.


What are CMU-Q classes like?

Some of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve had here have been in academics. You get small class sizes and the professors are all willing to work with you one on one and listen to the things that you’re interested in. For example, in my digital transformation class, I was really interested in learning about how different cultures are adapting to different technologies in different ways. I’m excited to work with Professor Nui in the future to build on what I learned in her class.


Have you participated in any extracurricular activities?

I started my own club called Carnegie Women Engage. After talking to a lot of women on campus, I realized that there are so many inspirational and empowered women here and I wanted to initiate a dialogue between women on the Pittsburgh and Doha campuses. I’m excited to see where it goes.


What are the similarities you find between the CMU campuses?

I thought people would be really different here, since they come from so many diverse areas. It’s cool to realize after talking for just 15 minutes, we’re actually very similar. We all share the same struggles, we all have hard classes and we are all trying to get a job.


If you were to talk to a student in Pittsburgh about doing an exchange semester, what would you tell them?

Imagine getting the best of both worlds: you have this amazing CMU community where you’ll quickly get to know everyone and bond over the CMU experience, and at the same time you’ll be immersed in a completely different culture. I think that’s such an invaluable experience. I didn’t expect to be learning all these things and getting to know people from so many different perspectives, as well understanding my own perspectives more.


Do you think you’ll stay in touch with the friends you have made here?

Absolutely. I am so grateful for all the faculty and students I’ve met here and I’m thinking about coming back for the World Cup in 2022. I’m also looking forward to seeing CMU-Q students on the Pittsburgh campus and showing them around.


What else would you like to share about your experience?

It was great coming to this community where I just didn’t know anyone, and then realizing quickly that I was meeting people and seeing familiar faces every day. Everyone here is super engaged and interested in the things that they’re learning about. It is incredibly inspiring and empowering.

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