Xitang Zhao: This Merrill Scholar and Kessler Fellow wants to empower others

"I envision a future full of accessible platforms where people have accessible resources to empower and support themselves to do and learn anything they want."

Xitang Zhao is one of thirty-two 2018 Merrill Presidential Scholar, an honor given to Cornell seniors in the top one percent of their class. Since 1988, each group of Merrill Scholars are selected by their college deans for their intellectual drive, leadership abilities and potential to contribute to society. The seniors, in turn, each nominate a high school teacher and a Cornell faculty member who have been most influential in their development as students and scholars.

“When I found out about the Merrill Scholars Program, I was just so happy I was on the list,” Zhao said. “It’s really a high honor. I’m excited and humbled to be a part of it.” Zhao has honored Sara Spiegel from James Madison High School and Tracey Brant, director of the Kessler Fellows Program in Cornell Engineering.

Though Zhao says he didn’t have a lot of academic guidance growing up, he has always been open to new things as he searched for what truly drives him. Originally from southern China, his parents emigrated to New York City when he was 12 to give their children a better education. Unsure of what he really wanted to do, he followed his two older sisters to business school, attending Baruch College after high school. 

“As soon as I got to business school, I just couldn’t see myself doing that for the rest of college, so I decided to change,” he said. Zhao transferred to NYU for electrical engineering—just by chance he says. “I applied to mechanical engineering too, but they rejected me. So, I became an electrical engineer.” As soon as he started, he knew he had found where he belonged. “I wish I had discovered the field earlier,” he said. “I find it exciting, making stuff and creating things. It’s so tangible and relevant when you think about the kind of impact you can have.”

Looking for a more challenging environment, he applied to Cornell for another transfer. “I didn't make it to Cornell when I transferred from business school originally, but I was able to get in the second time I applied, and I am really thankful for it,” he said. 

Immediately upon starting as a second semester sophomore, he joined the Engineering World Health project team. The team created a jaundice therapy device to treat infantile jaundice in developing countries. He pitched for the team during the 2017 Cornell Engineering Innovation Competition, where they won the Yunni and Maxine Pao Social Innovation Award. “I discovered I like pitching,” he said. “When I’m really into something that I feel is impactful, I enjoy presenting it.” 

Something else he enjoys, and what clearly drives him is what he calls accessible, empowering platforms. “As one example, the internet is accessible,” he explains. “As long as you have a computer, you can learn something on your own, whatever it is you’re interested in. It’s accessible in the sense that it’s freely and highly available and empowering in that you can invest in and encourage yourself with the great resources and community of the platform.”

He’s also a huge fan of street workouts. “I started working out in my sophomore year in high school. I’d go to parks in New York City and started doing pull-ups on the bars. When I first started, I could only do three, but I kept going every day after school because I wanted to be strong. Now I can do crazy stuff like the human flag, things I never thought I could do. So, the street workout thing is an accessible and empowering platform in the sense that if you really want to be strong, there is always a resource there, and it’s accessible to anyone—you can just go there and do it.”

“I would love to see some outdoor fitness equipment on Cornell’s campus,” he added. “I haven’t seen any here, but I think it would be a great resource, and people would really enjoy it.”   

He’s translated his interest in accessible, empowering platforms into his engineering career through education technology. Zhao worked at a hardware startup Robo Wunderkind, a company that develops modular programmable robots for young children, introducing them to engineering concepts. As part of the Kessler Fellows Program, he spent one month in Vienna, Austria working with their business office, and another six weeks in China working on the production side of the startup. 

“The Kessler Fellows Program is unrealistic and amazing at the same time,” he says. “It allows you to do something that you’ve wanted to do, but sometimes just can’t do it. I got the opportunity to be part of this program so I can pursue entrepreneurship and education technology, which may not be the most popular field, but it’s something I would definitely do in the future.”

The Kessler Fellows Program offers select junior engineering students a one-of-a-kind year-long experience that combines entrepreneurial education, personal exploration, a summer startup experience and the opportunity to inspire others through a reflective symposium. The Program is fully funded which helps Fellows identify and pursue the best fit for their summer.

“Since I entered engineering, I’ve wished that there was a product that exposed people to engineering earlier,” he said. “This was a great experience for me. I think what is lacking are the tools that are available. People just don’t always have the resources or guidance they need. I envision a future full of accessible platforms where people have accessible resources to empower and support themselves to do and learn anything they want.” 

In his spare time, Zhao has been working with a friend to develop an app that people can use to build things using the sensors on their phones. “There are so many sensors on the phone that you can use for so many things,” he says. “You can use the light sensor for scientific experiments. You can develop something using the accelerometer to detect when your phone shakes. You can create, for example, an intruder alarm, so if someone opened your door, it would beep. And you can do this all through the app we created.” 

Zhao envisions himself sharing this type of product with the public once he has more time to work on it, and it fits in well with his interest in accessible, empowering platforms. It’s also something that he says could potentially expose young people to engineering early.  

“Because I’ve done different things, other doors have opened up,” he said. “My core philosophy is ‘be kind, be happy, work hard and good things will happen.’ Someone said it, I didn’t, but I think it kind of captures a lot of the things I do. And everything’s connected. Things just seem to magically work out. But time is passing so quickly. May graduation is here! Looking back, I am incredibly grateful for my past two years of experience here. Cornell is the most challenging environment I’ve ever been part of. I think I’ve done more work in the past two years than I’ve done at any point before,” he said. 

“Cornell ECE is awesome but getting an ECE degree in Cornell is really a team effort,” he added. “There are too many people to mention without leaving some out, but I’ve met so many amazing and caring friends as well as a spectacularly supportive team of ECE faculty and TAs. Go, Cornell ECE!” 

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