Lei Sun

GSAL | Winter 2013–Spring 2014

Lei Sun’s experience at the University of Chicago began with a rejection letter. At the time, he already held a bachelor’s in engineering from Tsinghua University and a master’s in applied mathematics from Peking University, arguably China’s top schools. Lei had hoped to move on to the United States and the University of Chicago’s doctoral program in statistics. His consolation prize was acceptance to the master’s program.

Lei remained determined to experience higher education in America, and America itself. While he readily claims he is not an activist, Lei befriended many during his time in Beijing. He found inspiration in their goal to establish a brighter future for China. “I wanted to receive the best education and see what modern society looked like.” Lei accepted with another program and moved to Virginia.

He explains that, for top Chinese students, pursuing graduate study in the United States is common. They feel they have reached the educational apex in China and must venture abroad to find better programs.  Attracted still by the standard of living and job prospects, the United States becomes as much the goal as the education itself. Such ambition and aspiration, however, do not shield one from the tribulations of life transitions. Lei candidly admits he found himself depressed during his time in Virginia. Administrative scruples and a tragic incident at Virginia Tech made recovery all the more difficult. “When you are depressed, the sadness makes finding help and succeeding difficult… you don’t want to do anything.”

Ultimately, Lei realized his education in Virginia was ill-fitting to his needs and health. Lei reinvested himself in his aspiration to attend the University of Chicago. He found the Graduate Student-at-Large program and made contact with the GSAL office. He was promptly accepted and, with the PhD in mind, began taking research-focused statistics courses.

Lei has made the most of his tenure with GSAL, which has spanned six quarters and 15 courses. His exemplary grades caught the attention of Professor Matthew Stephens, who approached him to work on a research project involving statistical analysis of gene sequencing. The ever-humble Lei credits his opportunities with Professor Stephens immensely with his success at the University of Chicago and his ultimate acceptance to the PhD program in Statistics. Outside of class and research, Lei has kept a full calendar of events on all around campus, praising the diverse opportunities to engage with other disciplines, though he has time only to attend “about 20%” of the events that catch his eye. He has grown fond, too, of the city of Chicago, saying that it, like the university is a place that “does things, is proactive”.  Now that he has been accepted to the PhD program, Lei plans to alter his research project into something more long-term, potentially incorporating a big data or machine learning focus. While he admits he is “not very good at five year plans,” he hopes to teach one day.

Lei stresses that familiarity and access have been hallmarks of the GSAL program that have greatly aided him in achieving his goals. He urges students looking to GSAL to “keep an open mind…use your resources…ask for help… There are so many opportunities [here] for everyone.” Most importantly, he has found happiness where he is and with is goals. Of his accomplishments, he says:

“I can finally refer to the Department of Statistics as my department.”