Aorui Pi

Ze Zeng ’23 advocates diversity and inclusion for international students

student holding an award
Ze Zeng was a recent recipient of an Orange Circle Award which recognizes altruistic members of the Syracuse University community who have done extraordinary things in the service of others.

When the alarm goes off at 8 a.m., a college town in Upstate New York just had its second rain.  The  ground and air are full of freshness.  So are many students who are starting their day.  Ze Zeng ’23, a Whitman student studying finance, supply chain and business analytics, would never miss his daily routine of reading financial news before going to the morning classes. Yahoo Finance and Global Times are the primary resources for him to understand the global market. He believes that this kind of immersive study can help him better analyze and make rational decisions.

One word couldn’t sum up Ze.  He is the Todd B. Rubin Diversity and Inclusion Scholar and peer mentor at Syracuse University Blackstone LaunchPad.  He is the president of WeMedia Lab. He is the Diversity & Inclusion Leader at Whitman School of Management Dean’s Office.  He is the recipient of multiple scholarship, an RA at Flint Hall, assists with the Syracuse Welcome Office and the Office of First-Year & Transfer Programs.  He was one of the creators of A Hand for Wuhan project at Syracuse University.  He has been working on ideas for his own future venture.  The list goes on. 

Ze thinks it’s a compliment that people regard him as a global citizen. He was born in Guangzhou and raised in Beijing, China. He attended high school in Boston, MA, and then came to Syracuse University to major in finance and business analytics.  He is very much an integral part of the Syracuse community.

He gathers his inspiration from his surroundings, and accordingly, he has explored every continent through travel and exchange studies. 

“Many people come to Syracuse, thinking of leaving it one day,” he notes.  The international student community is a relatively small group and consequently, not many students genuinely get involved in on campus. The four-year college journey is just one chapter in an expedition in their lives.  Many are already planning to return to their home country, to or make a life somewhere else in the world.

Ze felt the same before. While he was in high school as an international student, he encountered many difficulties at the age of 14, such as cultural differences and language barriers. He realized at that time that he had to find ways to both financially and mentally support himself in order to survive in this society.

Before COVID-19 first reached Syracuse, Ze and four Chinese students had already started feeling the strain and gathering resources to build a fundraising platform on campus for communities in China, especially places that needed help the most.

Marvelously, through their work, they quickly raised $55,000 on the platform they created. On May 7, 2020, the Chinese community, mainly SU parents, donated $40,000 to the city of Syracuse for medical supplies.

This international demonstration of love shows the toughness and comradeship among students and families. “SU isn’t just a school or a place for education. It’s where I met my best friends and a place I grew.” Ze said.

Ze likes to be the first one who breaks the ordinary. He’s the first international student to run the president of Module UN in his high school, one of the few Chinese student representatives at the Student Association, and the first couple of Chinese student resident advisors.

His presence and intention encourage other internationals to see the possibility of experiencing remarkable college life.

Ze Zeng at a recent Whitman freshman welcome event, engaging new students in community building

As a self-starter, Ze feels motivated when like-minded people surround him.  Ze enjoys the creative explosion and energy that comes from people who have different backgrounds. “There are so many exciting ideas popping up at the LaunchPad every day.”  That’s one of the reasons he joined the Blackstone LaunchPad at SU Libraries as a peer mentor for student startups.

He engages students, specifically international students, to support and give them advice at the early stage of establishing their startup, such as finding resources, connecting with the industry professionals, and dealing with financial and legal services.

It’s also a mutual learning process for Ze. He can have hands-on experience to assist startups and networking with professionals while helping students.

Ze wants to bring more international students to this entrepreneurial environment that values creativity and diversity. He finds international students are big on innovation. “There are interesting ideas among fellow internationals but lack support. They are like trapped in a bubble.” For example, he’s currently helping a group of architectural students building a platform to connect designers and architects with local constructors.

Looking back at his journey Ze, he says, “I truly believe in every student who invests themselves, whether it’s reading the news or exercising every day.” 

Ze also proves the value and worth of investing in others, as he truly gives of himself to help other students on their Syracuse journey.

Story by LaunchPad Global Fellow Aorui Pi; photos supplied

Victoria Lawson ’20 on diversifying the industrial design industry through empowering WOC and creating affordable design services

Woman in an auditorium

Before college, life wasn’t easy for Victoria Lawson’20. The California-native girl had to take care of her mother at a young age and still keep good grades at school. Lawson found designing and building stuff to be a getaway from all the stress and anxiety she had to deal with growing up.

Lawson’s mentor, Mrs. Grover, introduced her to art at the school’s Art Technology Academy, and Ms. Ho introduced her to the industrial design world through Project Lead the Way Program (PLTW Engineering) in high school.

Learning from both excellent teachers and getting support from the school that awarded her a partial scholarship gave Lawson the opportunity to pursue her dream when she was accepted into the Industrial and Interaction Design program at the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Syracuse University

It makes her feel satisfied and proud when she can make something from scratch, like building up a company. Lawson opened her own cross-disciplinary freelance design service during her sophomore year called Weird & Woke, creating digital marketing, rapid prototyping, videography, photography, and video art.

Lawson learned the ins and outs of establishing a business by minoring in Entrepreneurship and Emerging Enterprise at the Whitman School of Management and being part of the Blackstone LaunchPad at Syracuse University where she became an award-winning girl boss.

During college Lawson worked for the LaunchPad as a graphic designer, content creator, digital marketing and brand expert.  She mentored students to help them develop brand assets, packaging and website design. 

She even documented a LaunchPad event with famous entrepreneur Bobbi Brown on “Creative Entrepreneurship and Building a Brand” with Bruce Teitelbaum ’86, CEO of RPG. Brown, a professional make-up artist and a serial entrepreneur, is someone Lawson highly respects in the field. She says that “I want to build stuff that helps improve the quality of life for others around the world.”

They say the post-graduation summer is the beginner of a new chapter. It’s the period that marks the end of your school life. It’s a crossroad of your destiny. We know so little about summer and winter because we are so used to the school seasons. Nobody ever tells graduates that there’s no such thing as a “life calendar.” Everyone gets on their own track the minute after graduation.

Lawson got a hint of life without an academic schedule when she graduated during the pandemic in 2020. But she was still overwhelmed by the pressures during the summer. She frantically applied for jobs, updating her resumés, building up portfolios, etc. “It was depressing. I had to do little things to make myself feel alive,” Lawson said. “It is important to take self-care and mental health seriously.  You can’t enjoy the fruits of your success if you are not taking care of yourself.”

The anxiety of graduation seems so unique, yet too normal to every graduate. Going back home, living with parents, and buying a car just like a smooth transition to young adulthood, Lawson turned on her grind mode and gradually found her purpose.

Building on her LaunchPad experience, Lawson scored a job at Techstars LA as a full-time designer for its renowned accelerator program.  The role combined her design skills and excellent understanding of the startup culture.  She then went on to be selected as a designer for the new Techstars and J.P. Morgan launch of the Techstars Founder Catalyst program starting this fall. Based in Atlanta, the program will provide valuable startup education and mentorship to a diverse cohort of up to 20 female entrepreneurs, giving them access to a vast network of entrepreneurs, investors and corporate partners. The program will cultivate a critically important local community of innovative, ambitious and auspicious women who are all highly motivated to support each other’s success.

The spirit of building up from nothing is engraved in Lawson’s DNA. While helping with other aspiring entrepreneurs, Lawson keeps doing her side hustles to sharpen her mind, such as being a digital marketing consultant for companies that varies from the aerospace industry to the health care industry, and a philanthropist. 

Lawson cares about communities and cultures. There are so many things that she learned outside her classroom, especially from the people around her. She enjoyed talking to people with different backgrounds. Within the VPA Warehouse and LaunchPad family, Lawson loved to learn culture through the diverse international student body.

To truly embrace the complexity of culture, she explored many countries in the world via volunteer services. She has been to South Africa to remodel preschools and made friendships with teens needing support by self-fundraising the trip expense. 

As a self-starter, she continues her design services and intends to grow further. She connected with many POC designers in the field and planned to build a platform focusing on creating effective and affordable designs for local businesses, called Women of Concept + HueMatter.

According to the Design Council Survey, the product and industrial design is 95% male, yet women make up 63% of students studying creative arts and design at university and design remains 78% male (The Design Economy 2018). She says that “Women of color need to be accentuated within the industrial design community, to uplift and grow our network.” They aim to uplift local communities of color by providing practical design that builds equity, equality, and expressiveness making design accessible for all.

Victoria will be a featured panelist at the LaunchPad’s CBT Startup Showcase on Friday, September 10 at 3 p.m. (EDT) Join her then on a panel with Dayanna Torres, director of the Blackstone Charitable Foundation.

To view more work from Victoria Lawson, please visit:

Story by Aorui Pi, LaunchPad Global Media Fellow; photos supplied

Natalie Lui ’22 on inclusive entrepreneurship

Student looking into the camera

Twenty two year-old Natalie didn’t know that she would win the Intelligence ++ gold prize with her cofounder Madison Worden during the global pandemic in her junior year. Her experience of growing up with her family in Burma and being an international student in the U.S., inspired her to create an accessible dating app for people with visible, invisible and neurodiverse disabilities.

Natalie Lui ’22 is a fashion design rising senior at Syracuse University College of Visual and Performing Arts with a minor in History at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs

Before she came to SU, Lui hasn’t decided what to do in the future. However, she has an artsy mind and fell in love with colors and fabrics. So, she committed to fashion design. With the in-depth learning and multiple hands-on projects at school, she found fascinating the logic behind the human interaction of designing. “I want to build another app that will help seniors interact with each other. I want it to be easy to use because sometimes even I blank out when using a new feature,” said Lui.

People say that a college is a place where you get a free trial of experiencing life without any backlash. No matter what path you choose, you will always pick up the little thing along the way and eventually help you find your passion. That’s how Lui gained her inspiration from various fields, such as humanity, music, sports, and spirituality. Being like a young adult who has a positive attitude toward the future, she ventured out to more things outside the fashion industry. 

Last year, Lui took an Intelligence ++ class that helped her find the niche that she felt comfortable with and passionate about. The course intended to identify and research the social issues and help people with disabilities with a creation using a non-linear and iterative process.

Lui quickly went through the ups and downs when she first came to the U.S. without her friends and family. Further, she had to deal with the military coup in her country, mental health issues and family loss amidst the pandemic. Overcoming the stressful time, Lui learned that being carefree makes her focus on the real problem. The problem that resonates with her the most is helping the marginalized group with her design, MeetCute.

Lui grew up with her grandparents when she was young, and she realized older people still experiencing loneliness even when people are around. Besides many interests she had in mind, she wants to help children and seniors as much as she could as well. “MeetCute is a safe and inclusive app for everyone looking to meet compatible people for companionship and dating… compatible with the most common accessibility features such as voice-over, text to speech, and changing color contrast. MeetCute will change dating in an image-obsessed culture and provide genuine people a way to meet in a safe digital environment.”

MeetCute, as a great combination of business and social assistance, was started by Madison a semester before Lui’s joining, and now the two promising entrepreneurs plan to go beyond the school project and make the app comes true. The Intelligence ++ competition boosted their energy of further pursuing their career. The team of two is now excited and looking forward to making a significant impact in the future. They expect a new tech co-founder to help build the app together and more funding from the investors.

To talk about how Lui gained this opportunity. The answer is simple, don’t be scared. People with zero experience don’t know their destination, but it is worth trying it out before you give it up. Lui encourages fellow students that “don’t be afraid of whether it’s to ask for advice or opportunities from a professional,” the worst scenario is rejection, and you lose nothing.  With the carefree life attitude, Lui can genuinely devote herself to MeetCute and help people along the way.

Story by Aorui Pi, LaunchPad Global Media Fellow; photos supplied

Aorui Pi ‘21 encourages international students to share their perspectives through the roundtable program, WeRound

headshot of a student looking to the distance

In light of multiple racial incidents on campus in 2019, WeMedia Lab, an international student-run new media organization that thrived on the WeChat platform, has gained a great deal of attention since then. Intending to break the boundary of stereotypical fellow internationals’ images, Aorui Pi ’21 initiated WeRound to encourage students to talk about the problem.

Pi is an advertising major student in the S.I. Newhouse School of Communications with minors in French and psychology at Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences. She grew up in a strict parenting household in China. She witnessed the deeply ingrained misogynistic attitudes and racism in a society that contradicted the education she has been exposed to. 

With the passion of empowering people with a simple compelling message, Pi joined six different student organizations during her undergraduate career at Syracuse University. Before joining WeMedia Lab, she had already gained knowledge of the daily administration of student publications. She adopted the methodology to build and shape current WeMedia Lab content as the editor-in-chief. “Many international students are afraid of speak up about their distress due to the language barrier and culture differences. I want to do as much as I can to change that image. International students deserve a voice,” Pi said.

Pi had a hard time discussing her identity crisis and peer pressure as an international person in the United States. “We are not alone. In this mixed-culture community, international students consist of 20% of the SU student body, and we have abundant resources at SU. Why not talk about it?” Pi decided to help students with the same struggles. She was deeply moved when her professor told them to do what was right for themselves during the #Notagainsu movement. “We are humans first, then students,” she said.

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WeRound program cover picture. Designed by Aorui P ‘21

The pandemic causes anxiety among the internationals and forced many people to adopt a new lifestyle. “The dilemma of being international in the U.S. scared many students. I’ve seen friends have eight canceled flight tickets in hand worried about their families every day.” Pi and fellow WeMedia Lab members had a heated conversation discussing the worthiness of studying abroad during the turbulence and attempted to find a solution for students who took a gap year. Inspired by Jubilee, an interactive YouTube channel that enables people to share opinions on multiple topics, Pi pitched the idea of an open roundtable and encouraged students to listen to people with different backgrounds and experiences.

WeRound covers five sections: student life, family, career, identity, and social issues.  Participants have talked about post-graduation life, gap year, Chinese New Year tradition, body dysmorphia, and Stop Asian Hate.  Pi wants to create a safe space for marginalized students and help them find peace by sharing their experiences. On top of that, Pi said, “Inviting and hearing people outside our age group also remedies the anxiety we might have.”

Stop Asian Hate poster. Designed by Liqi Ma ‘23

On March 16, eight Asian women’s death exacerbated issues for people around the world. With the help from the Associate Director of Operation and Outreach at Center for International Services, Wei Gao, Pi, her team quickly coordinated another session of roundtable confronting the Anti-Asian hatred. “Hearing all the stories from peers, professors, and counselors from the Barnes Center, I realized we made the right decision,” Pi said. 

With the influence of current affairs, Pi found her passion for journalism and is excited about her post-graduation journey of living in New York City. She attended her first protest when she participated in the Newhouse NYC program during the Spring semester. “The experience of studying abroad gives me a new perspective of viewing the world and media. Seeing both sides of a story firmed my belief of becoming a responsible storyteller,” Pi said to the fellow international students, “There was no secret for maximizing your college journey. Read emails carefully and find resources that will help you along the way will be my recommendation.”

Story by Aorui Pi, LaunchPad Global Media Fellow; photos supplied