UCL Alumni


Creating a community with Yijin Zhang

How Yijin Zhang (MA Architecture and Historic Urban Environments 2020) established and cultivated the Zhejiang Alumni Club.

Yijin Zhang

19 May 2023

For many alumni, feeling part of the UCL community was one of the most special aspects of their time at the university. When Yijin Zhang (MA Architecture and Historic Urban Environments 2020) returned to her hometown of Hangzhou – the capital city of Zhejiang province, China – and found herself missing this sense of community, she set about creating a new alumni club, where fellow graduates could make new connections and support each other.

Zhejiang Alumni Club

A natural fit

Yijin has always been fascinated by urban development. Having grown up in a city like Hangzhou, it was perhaps inevitable. Hangzhou is home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the West Lake, and close to two more, which have shaped its development into a modern yet scenic city. Yijin built on this fascination by studying an undergraduate degree in architecture in her hometown.

Making the move to study in London was the logical next step; studying at The Bartlett School of Architecture gave Yijin the opportunity to further her training at a world-renowned architecture school, while living in a city she loves just as much as Hangzhou. 

On choosing her Master’s degree, Yijin says: “There are some cities, such as my hometown, Hangzhou, and my second home, London, which need to be more careful and consider more factors in the process of urban development. I chose this major because of my love for these cities.”

Finding her place in London

Yijin’s experience studying at UCL was shaped by the relationships she developed with her coursemates and tutors.

“A special memory I have is from Chinese New Year, when my tutor, Professor Edward Denison, invited us to his house to make dumplings to celebrate. I love my teachers and classmates so much.”

And her architectural education went well beyond the walls of a classroom. 

“My teachers took us on a tour of the city, teaching us to identify the different characteristics of the bricks and the era of the houses they represented. 

“We visited archives, museums and libraries and encountered maps and drawings that were more than 100 years old but seemed to be brand new.”

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

After graduating, armed with new ideas and an advanced skillset, Yijin returned to Hangzhou to apply her training to the unique setting of her hometown. 

“While the city is rapidly developing and expanding, cultural heritage, as a spiritual source, also needs to be preserved; my job is to find a balance between these two, so that all stakeholders can reach an agreement.”

But though Hangzhou offered Yijin a place to pursue her passions and develop her career, it was missing something she’d enjoyed so much in London: a UCL community.

“Once I graduated, I looked to join an alumni group that already existed, because I thought, there are so many UCL graduates every year, how could there not be an alumni association in Zhejiang? But it turned out that there wasn’t an existing group, so I thought, ‘I'll organise one’.”

Yijin established the Zhejiang Alumni Club in January 2022. Her first step was to understand how it could best serve the Zhejiang alumni community.

“The most important thing is to clarify the direction of the club. What are our members’ needs, what kind of activities will appeal to a wide audience?”

After developing a set of principles for the group and recruiting fellow alumni to support the group’s activities, Yijin was ready to run her first event, Alumni Brand, which focused on career advice.

“When I planned the first event, I was still in the early stages of my profession, and the most frequently discussed topic with my classmates and friends at the time was confusion over job options. I invited alumni who had achieved some success to speak about their personal careers and developing a personal brand.

“Establishing an alumni group requires a lot of things to be done and a lot of difficulties to be dealt with, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to test our abilities and for our team to develop strong friendships.”

From fledgling to thriving

Since its first event, the Zhejiang Alumni Club hasn’t stopped building momentum. Alumni Brand has developed into a regular series, featuring alumni working in a range of industries – from coffee to e-commerce, and from real estate to finance.

The club has also set up the Make Friends Together series. These events take many forms – whether it’s a Harry Potter-themed Easter Ball, spending time planting trees to mark Arbor Day, or simply watching the World Cup – but the goal is always to help alumni socialise and make new connections. 

One of the group’s most popular activities is their picnics, which see alumni come together to barbeque their own food, enjoy fireworks and – if they’re brave enough – take part in karaoke.

Zhejiang Alumni Club picnic

“I believe that the biggest benefit that people gain from the alumni community is the experience of meeting new people and sharing mutual campus memories, which is a really significant and lovely thing.”

With such a range of activities taking place, it’s easy to see why the club is flourishing. Yijin attributes the group’s success to her fellow volunteers.

“I am extremely grateful to my partners. They are extremely passionate and have a strong volunteer spirit.”

But the foundation stone of the group’s achievements is Yijin’s determination to give back the kind of support she received as a student.

“Everyone receives some help and support in one way or another during their studies, whether it comes from classmates or teachers or the school. When the opportunity arose, I was eager to pass on the warmth I received.”

Yijin has big plans for the club’s future, including the creation of an innovative new event series and collaborating with more organisations such as other alumni clubs. But whatever activities the club introduces, the purpose will always be creating and nurturing connections.

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