Three programs later: Wenhao Yu’s Notre Dame Journey

Author: Abby Urban

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When Wenhao Yu first came to the United States, he had no idea that a study abroad semester would propel him into a new life and promising future career. Now, almost three Notre Dame programs later, he is not planning on leaving anytime soon.

Yu first attended Notre Dame during his junior year of college. The American Semester Abroad Program (ASAP) allowed him to leave his computer science program in China for a semester in the U.S.

“I love adventure. I love to get into a new environment and explore new things,” he said.

One of these first new experiences was living in O’Neill Family Hall. Unlike anything at his Chinese university, Notre Dame’s dorm culture allowed him to immerse himself in the community.

Another cultural difference for Yu was the U.S. learning style. His Chinese classes didn’t allow for the one-on-one, individualized approach. At Notre Dame, class presentations, office hours and discussing research with peers became new ways for Yu to engage in the learning process.

“It’s not like I just listened to the professor introducing cases,” he said. “You have the opportunity to do a project and to show it to other people. This is a great inspiration for me to use what I have learned to create a fun product!”

As he developed his English comprehension, he spent time with professors, talking with them outside of class to better understand their lectures. Professors made an effort to ensure that he understood all of the material.

“I didn’t feel nervous or anxious about being left behind in the classes,” he said.

Yu enjoyed his semester so thoroughly that he decided to stay for another program. His research continued over the summer with Notre Dame’s International Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (iSURE), a summer initiative that allowed Yu to continue his machine learning research.

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Through this program, he developed a relationship with Professor Meng Jiang, who focuses on data mining, machine learning and natural language processing. Together, Jiang and Yu worked on technology to develop machines that understand human language. Their shared interest in using AI in everyday life inspired Yu.

“I think this is really cool, that he’s using AI technology to change the world,” he said.

He was able to focus specifically on natural language technology - teaching machines to understand and generate human language.

The summer further fueled his passion for research - allowing him to move beyond more basic projects to developing never-before-seen technologies. He felt pushed to explore new ideas.

“The classes at Notre Dame were really helpful to me to encourage my motivation to enter this area and do better things,” he said.

After extending his time abroad, Yu returned home to China to discern his future plans and prepare for grad school applications.

Once again, his decisions led him back to Notre Dame.

“I felt Notre Dame was the best plan for me,” he said. “The topics and professors match my interests more than other universities,” he said.

His PhD program still focuses on machine learning, but he now concentrates on teaching machines to answer questions in human language.

Jiang, Yu’s mentor from his first summer program, is now his PhD advisor. Over Yu’s time at Notre Dame, the two have developed a close working relationship and a shared passion for AI.

“I love working with people who listen, talk, and take action,” said Jiang. “Some may be good at two of them, and Wenhao is good at all three. Many people, including his mentors at internships and his mentees in my lab, love working with him. He is on track to be an independent and productive researcher.”

The individualized learning that first drew Yu to Notre Dame continues in his PhD program.

“When you can talk with professors, discuss ideas and have a lot of resources, it’s really easy for you to realize your idea and test if your new idea can work,” he said.

Two foundations support Yu’s PhD -- the Bloomberg Ph.D Fellowship and the Notre Dame Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) Fellowship -- and he could not be more grateful for their support.

Yu’s work in the lab has landed him opportunities with Microsoft Research and the Allen Institute of AI Research this summer, and he’s not stopping there.

He would love to stay in the U.S. and work in academia or a research lab, to help develop new AI technologies.

Throughout his time at Notre Dame, the academic opportunities, research culture and dorm life have all made Yu’s feelings about the university very clear.

“Notre Dame is a really good place,” he said. “I really love it here.”

Learn more about global engagement programs at Notre Dame.