Five years ago, Miaoxin Wang searched the internet for “top ten architecture schools in the United States.” He applied to eight of the ten. In 2015, he moved 6,870 miles away from his home in Zhengzhou, China to San Luis Obispo, CA, where he had been accepted into the architectural engineering department.

A senior now, Wang said he hoped to make California his permanent home and begin his career. After five years at Cal Poly, Wang was juggling interviews and job hunting when the COVID-19 pandemic moved his final quarter of college to remote instruction, postponed his graduation ceremony and virtually erased any certainty he had about his post-graduate plans. 

Wang’s parents have yet to ever see his college home, and his graduation would have been the first time his family would be together in San Luis Obispo. While disappointed he will not be able to celebrate his educational journey and accomplishments like he originally planned, Wang is also sitting with the prospect of not being able to stay in the U.S. 

“When I first heard about COVID-19 happening in China, I actually didn’t think too much about it,” Wang said. “Then it felt like in the course of a week, we went from regular school to shelter-in-place.”

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Wang had plans to participate in a two-week internship over spring break for an architecture firm in Los Angeles, in hopes of being invited back this summer. A week before spring break, University President Jeffrey Armstrong announced that Spring quarter would be virtual, and Wang’s internship was canceled.

“It would take a huge amount of trust for someone to hire me, and that trust is not an easy thing,” Wang said. “I’m not from this country. It’s really hard to even get the opportunity to get in the office.”  

Wang applied for Optional Practical Training (OPT) in March, a program that allows graduate students to work on an extended student visa without employer sponsorship. This had always been his original plan: to achieve legal permission to stay in the U.S. However, the likeliness of meeting the program’s requirements has been rattled by the pandemic, Wang said.

If Wang’s OPT is granted, he has 90 days to find a job and prove employment, but that doesn’t mean he can just work anywhere. Wang has to get a job related to his major of study. To summarize, this means finding work on a deadline in the architecture field, while in the midst of a pandemic and looming recession. He expects to hear back from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service by August 10.
“I try not to think pessimistically,” Wang said. “Because maybe, just maybe, staying in the U.S. wouldn’t be the best choice, given the situation, because the architecture industry is not thriving.”

Although, Wang expressed disappointment that no Zoom screen or attempted smile could hide.

“I think there is [better] intellectual conflict among architects in the U.S. to try and push the boundaries of what defines architecture and what architecture is,” Wang said. “It would definitely be more beneficial for me to be here and grow.”

Here versus home

In China, people use a personalized QR code payment system that has made cash and cards obsolete. Everything is “digitized,” and the government recently turned to use this same system for virus containment, Wang said. 

For example, families have a window of only two and a half hours to go out. If families stay out for more than two and a half hours, the Chinese government may deactivate their QR code, Wang said.

“That’s how crazy it is in China, the way they control people,” Wang said. “I don’t know the consequence because my family never got into that trouble, but I’m pretty sure if you went out for more than two and a half hours, they could just deactivate your QR code and you wouldn’t even be able to take a bus or taxi or anything.”

Wang decided to stay in San Luis Obispo instead of going back to China over fear of contracting the virus while traveling and possibly infecting his family. In order to get home, Wang would need to go fly out of San Francisco or Los Angeles, two major COVID-19 hotspots, followed by two weeks of solo-quarantine before seeing his family. The risks and tedious travel process, in combination with the fact that his thesis project was ramping up, made staying in San Luis Obispo the better choice, he said.  

Despite a virtual quarter with no access to school equipment and laboratories, Wang is hard at work on his senior project and said it has been a personal struggle beyond just the workload.  

“I care a lot about school and I really want to put a good end to my academic work,” Wang said. “It’s been emotionally difficult for me, because it’s about meeting my own expectations.”

To round out his Cal Poly career, Wang is creating what he calls a “media complex,” set in Beijing, China on the edge of “The Forbidden City.” This senior project is a theoretical, towering wall filled with screens broadcasting videos, photos, advertisements and any form of media. However, unlike the rest of China, this media complex is free of censorship. 

“It started with my interest in studying the relationship between the media and architecture,” Wang said. “I was interested in the media as a means of control and conveying power.”

Wang’s father is a politician for the Chinese Communist Party. When asked for details about his father’s position, Wang’s brief response was: “He is good. That’s the only thing I can say.”

“He’s a tough figure,” Wang said. “He believes censorship is good for the nation as a whole, but not necessarily for the individual.”

After living as a college student in a country with First Amendment rights, Wang said he does not believe he even had opinions about censorship and the Chinese government before coming to the U.S.

“I do believe that no matter what government does, people always have a way to get around it,” Wang said. “That’s an idea behind my thesis project — that the government is trying so hard to control everything, including the internet and media, but there is always a way to get around it.”

A Mexican food lover, dancer and member of the Chinese Students’ Association, Wang said he still thinks of his five years at Cal Poly as a positive experience.

“My social experiences and extracurriculars have been really great,” Wang said. “Even after five years of living here, I still feel like I’m learning, and I want to always feel the urge to learn.”

Even though Wang is still unsure whether he will stay in the U.S. or go back home to China, he said he is grateful for what comes next for him.

“I think in either case, whether I stay or go, I should always take it as an opportunity and a different way of understanding both architecture and life in general.”

Read more about Wang and Epple’s reporting in Behind the Story.

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