By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — As an elementary school student in New York City, Niskayuna High School senior Cindy Zhao used to read books about people living in quiet, small towns and daydream about being in a quieter setting herself.
She read a lot of books amid the din of traffic outside her window, which she has since grown to miss. Her brother, Daniel, who graduated from Niskayuna High in 2011, was the one who first introduced her to the Harry Potter series and the work of fantasy author Cornelia Funke.
“I was really introverted as a kid,” Zhao recalls, though she adds that’s what led her to become academically interested in English and history.
In sixth grade, she got her wish and transplanted to the suburbs. Her mother remarried and relocated the family to Godfrey Lane in Niskayuna, where Zhao began attending Iroquois Middle School.
After the move, as before, she often relied on her older brother to push her to try new things, even as she resisted. Zhao admits to being independent to the point of stubbornness, but she learned she liked many of the things Daniel suggested.
That, in part, led her to become co-editor of the school newspaper, The Warrior. Before her, Daniel had written opinion, though she never took that position because she didn’t want to do exactly the same thing. She is also co-president of Recycling Club.
“It’s a big push that I made myself do,” she said.
Zhao has discovered a leadership style that relies on collaboration, which is why she enjoys working side by side with her co-president and co-editor. She also finds happiness when helping others by tutoring or volunteering.
Despite her love for language and history, and her investment in the school newspaper, Zhao said she isn’t considering a career as a reporter.
“The way I’ve always thought about journalism is the way they portray it on TV,” she said. Fictional reporters make the job look ill-suited to her personality, too pushy and standoffish.
Recently, she said, listening to the Serial podcast on NPR introduced her to a different type of journalism that she could envision herself trying. But at the moment, Zhao said she’s focused on a dream she’s had since she was little: She wants to go to medical school.
But even there, she reserves the right to forge a different path.
“I’m not a planner like I think my brother and my mom are,” Zhao said. “Even now, I’m not committed to a college.”
If she does stick with her original plan and pursue medical school, though, the soft-spoken Zhao hopes people will recognize she made her own decision. Zhao said she’s contended with a frustrating stereotype throughout her high school experience: that of the American student with pushy immigrant parents. Her mom is originally from Southern China, near Hong Kong.
“[My classmates] seem to be under the impression that my parents are forcing this on me,” she said. But they aren’t.
“From the bottom of my heart, I want to make my mom proud,” she said.
And that will be the case even if she chooses not to follow in her brother’s footsteps by pursuing medical school.
“I think my mom will support me no matter what I do,” she said.
Like any high school senior, Zhao is both nervous and excited about graduation. But as a reader and writer, she expresses it more eloquently than most.
“It scares me. The uncertainty of the next 60 years of my life kind of scares me,” she said. “I guess everyone just kind of lives with that. That fear is also very exciting.”
For her college experience, Zhao hopes to head back to the bustle of a big city, though she’s not yet sure which one. But when she arrives, she’ll have something she couldn’t always grasp before she had her very own small-town experience: confidence in her own voice.
Five questions for Cindy Zhao
Q: What would be your perfect ice cream sundae?
A: I love mint and I love chocolate. I wouldn’t be able to finish it, but it would be three scoops: Mint cookie crumble, coffee, and Death by Chocolate.
Q: If you were an animal, what would you be?
A: Definitely a dog. I love dogs.
Q: If you had to choose one color to paint your room for the rest of your life, what would you pick?
A: I’ve read a few articles on how color changes your mood. If you think of a beach house and that sea foam green with white accessories, that would be it.
Q: If you could spend one month exploring anywhere in the world, where would you go?
A: Europe. I’ve visited China. I think Europe because I’ve never been there before.
Q: If you could trade lives with a fictional character for a week, who would you choose?
A: Hermione Granger. She’s honestly my favorite character in all fictional realms.