For many students, graduating with a single degree in four years is no easy feat.
So imagine graduating with four.
Jin Zhang did exactly that, earning four degrees in four and a half years at Penn State.
The international student from Guangdong, China, received her master of science in information sciences and technology this spring. She also earned two bachelor’s degrees in the College of Information Sciences and Technology – one in IST with an option in design and development, and one in security and risk analysis with an option in information and cybersecurity.
Though she has a decorated technical resume, Zhang didn’t initially set out on a path in IST. A talented cellist who grew up with a dream of being a musician, Zhang’s fourth degree is a bachelor of arts in music performance through the College of Arts and Architecture’s Penn State School of Music.
“I was imagining becoming Yo Yo Ma someday,” she said, speaking of the French-born American cellist who was a child prodigy who began performing at the age of 4.
Zhang’s older brother is also a musician and is currently in the top conservatory in China. She said that he had a huge impact on her and her decision to pursue her musical education. Following her passion, she attended a conservatory and middle school in Beijing, beginning with the piano before transitioning to cello, which she practiced 10 hours a day at the age of 13.
“I only spent a half a year practicing cello and I got in [to the conservatory],” said Zhang. “My teacher said that was a miracle.”
When she was 15 years old, Zhang’s youth orchestra traveled to the Lancaster Academy of Music in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There, she met cello instructor Sarah Male, who saw talent in Zhang and invited her to move to the United States to study. Zhang received permission from her parents and moved to America, spending half her time studying at Lancaster Mennonite High School and half at the music academy.
She then skipped her junior year of high school and began to look at colleges. Her uncle, a computer science professor at Princeton, encouraged her to seek out a major in addition to her musical passion, so she explored Penn State and IST.
“I was looking for a university where I wouldn’t have to abandon cello, but I could do both,” she explained.
Starting her Penn State career pursuing a music degree, she landed in an IST 110 class and found herself intrigued by the coursework.
“I switched [my major] to undecided so I could take other IST courses,” she said. “I then met a professor who introduced SRA (Security and Risk Analysis) to me. That’s how I ended up getting them both.”
As an IST student, Zhang thrived in her classes.
“Jin sought out undergraduate research experiences early in her time in IST, and I could see from the start that she had an eager mind and wanted to have impact,” said Mary Beth Rosson, associate dean for graduate and undergraduate studies and Zhang’s faculty adviser.
While it was sometimes challenging to juggle the schedules to earn three undergraduate degrees simultaneously, Zhang balanced her workload so that she could gain the most from each of her majors.
“The most important thing is that I learned the skills,” she said. “I love the degrees, but I’m not just trying to get the degrees. I really wanted to learn in each area.”
“Now there are multiple things I can do in the future,” she added.
With a master’s degree now under her belt, Zhang has traveled back to China to spend time with her family and to begin her career. At the time of her graduation, she had interviews lined up at two leading Chinese tech companies.
While her professional future looks bright, she plans to return to Penn State to further advance her education.
“I’ll come back for a Ph.D.,” she said.
When she does, it won’t be a surprise to Rosson and other faculty in the college.
“She has a strong internal spirit and lots of grit,” said Rosson. “I never had any doubt that she’d succeed, and at a high level.”