This story is one of a series of profiles of 2012 graduates. See all senior profiles for this year here.
Going into senior year, Kevin Zhai wanted to shift his priorities. In his previous three years, he had put in a lot of time and effort as the chair of the Asian American Alliance, as a Sigma Nu brother and treasurer, and as a varsity swimmer.
“I wanted to focus on academics this year, which I definitely haven’t been able to do,” he said.
Instead, he spent most of his time this year heavily involved in student life again, mainly working on finance initiatives like student project grants as the Columbia College Student Council vice president of finance.
When he was approached about being on a CCSC executive board ticket, he debated what to do. But ultimately, it was such a “unique opportunity” that he couldn’t pass it up, he said.
After working on the organizational level as the chair of AAA and then on the board level as an Activities Board at Columbia representative, Zhai said he wanted the chance to work on the council level.
“I had already kind of planned out my life, and I really wasn’t anticipating this part,” he said of CCSC.
A busy four years at Columbia is partially why he’s decided to turn down a paralegal job at a law firm downtown next year in favor of moving back to his hometown near Seattle, applying to Ph.D. programs, and working on personal goals.
“I’ve spent the past four years running around like a chicken with its head cut off,” he said.
He hopes to accomplish practical goals, like learning to cook and working on a lifelong habit of staying fit, as well as “more whimsical” goals, like learning how to drive stick shift and practicing French with a pen pal.
Zhai transferred from the School of Engineering and Applied Science to Columbia College after his sophomore year to become a philosophy major, although he continued to pursue science by concentrating in physics. He had sold himself as a math and science student when he applied to college, but he ultimately realized that physics was the only math or science field that appealed to him.
“It was a huge turning point in my life,” he said of the transfer. “The whole point of these four years in my life is for me to develop myself as a person.”
“My dream is to go into academia,” he said, though he added that “it’s definitely not an easy road.” He said that getting into a top Ph.D. program and getting a job afterward are both incredibly tough.
“Ultimately, I think it’s the one thing I really, really care about and can see myself doing,” Zhai said, adding that he’s mainly interested in Eastern philosophy. “It gives me the freedom to really explore a lot of things and ask whatever questions I want to ask.”
Other defining experiences of his college career were spending four years on the varsity men’s swim team and being a brother of the Sigma Nu fraternity.
Zhai initially pledged Sigma Nu because “it was like the ‘swimmer fraternity.’” Since then, more recruiting has been done outside of the swim team, which has given him the opportunity to form friendships he wouldn’t have otherwise had.
“My main social group is still the swim team … That definitely provides the most stability,” he said. But “there were also a lot of opportunities in Sigma Nu where I could meet other people that weren’t on the swim team,” he said.
College was also a place of personal discovery for Zhai, and he said that being honest with himself and others by coming out has added depth to his friendships.
“Once you get to a certain age and a certain point in your life, the deferral of your own happiness no longer becomes a sustainable endeavor,” Zhai said. “You have to do things now that make you happy. If you’re going to sit and wait for happiness to come to you, it never will.”