From Chengdu to Studio City: A Student Spotlight With Jina Zhao ‘20

Looking back on her childhood, Jina Zhao ‘20 leaned back into her chair and laughed. “I was really ambitious,” she recalled with pride and a little embarrassment. “I was a little young, but I think I still am.”

Before coming to Thacher, Jina’s personality took shape both inside and outside of the United States. As a child in first and second grade, she attended boarding school in mainland China. The city she called home, Chengdu, would become the crux of her early years. Jina remarked, “I think the place that changed me the most was Chengdu because I went to school there.”

As with most formative experiences, Jina encountered her own obstacles. Her peers often saw her as an outsider. “People would tease me about being a foreigner,” she told the Notes. With an amused expression, she described how her fellow students sometimes excluded her, branding her ‘laowai’ —the Mandarin term for foreigner. “I was so angry,” she chuckled. “I just stormed out and started crying.”

Yet during this time, Jina built a sturdy foundation for what would become her defining quality: self-awareness. After her time in boarding school, Jina often traveled between China and her future homes in California and Texas. She mentioned, “As a small child, I just flew around by myself.”

In Austin, Texas, Jina attended third and fourth grade, living with her mom and embracing the city’s unique blend of Southern charm and urban sprawl. “My mom is sort of a hippie. So I’m sort of a hippie, too” she observed. Jina joked, “I don’t think my friends would agree with that, though.”

Living with her dad in Los Angeles, Jina contrasted her time in Austin with the palm trees and desert hillsides of Studio City. As she moved through middle school, her collective experience in Austin and China had inspired a certain restless motivation that marks Jina’s character. She remarked, “Anything I pursue I try to be good at. Sometimes it’s hard because I can’t do it all, but I try to be.”

At Thacher, Jina has found a home to channel her drive. “I like to learn about different things,” Jina said of her favorite subjects, detailing her shared love of the sciences and humanities. For her, both disciplines have provided unique avenues to satisfy her industrious persona.

Yet despite Jina’s ability in the lab or around the Harkness table, she finds her greatest joy in a grounding passion for art.

Whether sketching horses in muted grays or painting vibrant rolling fields, Jina sees art as the perfect ground to explore. “Sometimes I do black and white, sometimes I do color,” she offered when asked about her style. “I don’t really have a direction.” The freedom art affords —the ability to pursue any subject or form— is essential to her.

If not engaged in art, Jina finds time to her Chinese culture. “Every day I dedicate a certain amount of time to reading and writing Chinese,” she described. For her, the language offers a connection with her family living abroad. While affirming her identity, Jina explained maintaining cultural ties is “something I can hold onto, something tangible. It’s what’s special about myself.”

Occasionally, Jina feels Thacher’s demands at odds with her personal interests. “I think a lot of time Thacher tries to make you do everything,” she confessed with some frustration. While horse-riding ate hours away from her art, academics has forced her to spend her free time wisely. Though sometimes irritated with Thacher’s busy culture, Jina appreciates its variety. She commented, “[Thacher] opens you up. I think I needed more of that. Not academically, but in general. I needed to meet people and study more things. I think it works out for me in just scattering my tension in different directions.”

Here, in its persistent and varied demands, Thacher has offered new challenges as Jina navigates social dynamics and academic pressures. While she occasionally struggles to balance it all, Jina finds herself focusing on meaningful personal growth.“I want to be a better version of myself,” Jina remarked. “Sometimes I get wrapped up in my own problems.”

Independent and earnest, Jina brings a rare combination of qualities to the Thacher community. Ultimately, her confidence remains strongest not in the classroom or on the canvas, but in the knowledge of her own direction. Although sometimes doubtful about her place at Thacher, Jina is certain that what matters are the traits she builds upon— empathy, integrity, and sincerity.

Looking forward, Jina is unsure where she’ll arrive as a senior; however, before her interview ended, she took the time to express her hopes:

“Academics are important, but they shouldn’t be the focus of Thacher. My message is not that you shouldn’t take academics seriously, it just shouldn’t be your main goal of your education. Finding ways to be a better version of yourself is far more important and far more difficult, at least for me.” 

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