Student spotlight: Shawn Zhu takes leadership skills to Madison commission

By day, Shawn Zhu attends classes as a University of Wisconsin–Madison sophomore studying computer engineering and game design.

A headshot of a student named Shawn Zhu
Shawn Zhu

But on some nights, he’s attending local government meetings to uphold policies that provide equal employment and promotional opportunities and equal access to public services for all people in Madison as a member of the city’s Affirmative Action Commission. 

“It is so important for students to be engaged in the community that they live in. It’s important for anyone to be involved,” said Zhu, who grew up in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. “There’s so much happening in the world around you. It’s nice to have some kind of impact that you are passionate about on things that you can see every day – an impact that you can live through.” 

Zhu was connected to this leadership opportunity with the city through Urban and Regional Planning 215: Welcome to Your Urban Future taught by UniverCity Alliance (UCA) Managing Director Gavin Luter in Spring 2022.

The class covers the basics of what cities do for residents and how they operate. It also is an extension of UCA’s mission to connect a growing community of people on campus looking to improve their communities. 

“Shawn is a perfect example of why we created this course. Students should understand that they have a unique opportunity to make communities better through whatever discipline they study,” Luter said. “Without this course, Shawn probably would still have been an engaged student on campus, but this course allowed him to leverage his interests to be an engaged resident of the city of Madison.”

Zhu added: “The opportunities that UniverCity Alliance gave me is something that I appreciate greatly. I had a wonderful time in that class overall.”  

Incorporating student voice in local government

For Zhu, the class emphasized the myriad of ways that Madison residents – or residents of any community – can get involved. With his knowledge of local government, Zhu is now encouraging a friend concerned about bike theft to reach out to city leaders.

“You don’t need to be constricted to certain thoughts or ideas about how to get involved,” Zhu said. “You’re living here for a certain amount of time, so use that time the best you can.”   

Ryan Moze, the chair of the Affirmative Action Commission, emphasized the value of including student voices in local government. 

“College students make up a significant portion of Madison residents, so it is important that they are represented on city committees,” Moze said. “Shawn and the other students who have served on the Affirmative Action Commission have always provided a valuable fresh perspective on the issues facing the committee.”

Zhu is passionate about building his leadership skills before entering the job field. 

In addition to his computer engineering major and game design certificate, he is also pursuing a certificate in leadership. He works at the Space Science and Engineering Center as an IT specialist and is involved in the Wisconsin Engineering Student Council as a part of the diversity and student engagement committee. 

From commission to classroom 

In the Fall 2022 semester, Zhu enrolled in Interdisciplinary Engineering 303 Applied Leadership in Engineering to continue building his leadership experience. 

This course partnered with UCA’s hallmark UniverCity Year (UCY) program to pair students with community projects. Zhu and a group of his classmates worked on disaster-proofing critical infrastructure of Outagamie County, which is partnering with UCY from 2021-24

“The class brought in a lot of different aspects of engineering that you don’t normally see in academic classes: Being able to work on a team with actual clients and being able to combine both what you know as an engineer – your methodical logic and thinking – as well as being able to create a human solution to this problem,” Zhu said. 

It also required Zhu to use skills he’s developed as a member of the Affirmative Action Commission: reading hundreds of pages of technical documents. His experiences with Madison’s local government gave him the skillset to take on the Outagamie County project. 

“Doing this as well as my work with the city has definitely improved my appreciation of making policy and seeing how things come to life,” Zhu said during the final presentation on Dec. 13. 

Outagamie County is looking to update its five-year Hazard Mitigation Plan and wants to better understand risks facing the county as a result of flooding. Zhu’s team combined floodplain data with satellite view to identify at-risk areas, particularly roads and farmlands, on a map that they delivered to the county. 

After the presentation, Outagamie County Emergency Management Director Paula Van De Leygraaf said the timing of the students’ final project with the county’s Hazard Mitigation Plan update is beneficial. 

“Hopefully we can take some of the data you collected, save us some time on the backside, and put some of these into our current plan, so that we can work with these municipalities that have been identified for some resolution on how we can prevent future flooding issues in their communities,” Van De Leygraaf said.

As an engineering student, Zhu said he’s often following a rigid schedule and making sure he’s meeting degree requirements and getting into required classes. He said working on a project that’s “connected to the real world,” is so “necessary” as a part of his engineering education.  

“From experience in my own classes, some of the projects feel disconnected because we’re just trying to get our grasp around the concepts before we can apply it to larger projects,” Zhu said.  

The project with Outagamie County challenged Zhu to consider questions like how his team’s work might affect current residents, the environment, and the future. 

“These are all things that we don’t necessarily think about in our education that are so important to real world work,” Zhu said. 

Luter hopes that Zhu’s experience with UCA and the course will inspire and motivate others at UW–Madison to create connections in communities for more students. 

“UniverCity Alliance has been trying to bring the Wisconsin Idea to life for more students, instructors, and researchers. Without these opportunities being more widely available, UW-Madison can’t realize its full potential as a land-grant university,” Luter said. “We owe it to the residents of Wisconsin to be the most community-engaged and humble institution possible.”