A photo of Carl Zhou.
USC Renaissance Scholar Carl Zhou found the perfect fit for his ambitions at USC. “I knew this was the place for me.” (Photo: Andy Chen.)

International student graduates with 4 bachelor’s degrees from USC Dornsife

Sibo “Carl” Zhou earns degrees in applied mathematics, religion, economics and data science, and global studies, and captures a USC Renaissance Scholar Prize in the process.
ByDaniel P. Smith

Sibo “Carl” Zhou insists he never set out to be an overachiever.

Rather, Zhou, a native of Haikou on China’s southern island of Hainan, calls his academic life a blend of strategic planning and unexpected developments. Serendipity mixed with earnest practicality.

“Life is a challenge, a test, but I love putting effort into things and seeing what I can accomplish,” he says.

On May 10, Zhou graduates from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences with four bachelor’s degrees, a rare achievement that speaks to Zhou’s enterprising spirit and desire to succeed.

Planned and unplanned

As early as middle school, Zhou set his sights on attending a college in the United States, following the path of an older cousin who turned his U.S. education into a thriving career at Amazon.

Zhou successfully lobbied his parents to attend high school in the states, a move he said would improve his candidacy with college admissions officers. After graduating from a Catholic school in suburban Chicago, Zhou ventured to USC, pulled to the university’s sterling academic reputation and L.A.’s vitality, from its beaches and Hollywood to its prominent Asian communities.

“I knew this was the place for me,” he says of USC.

Zhou entered the university as an applied mathematics major, a deliberate decision fueled by his aptitude for math and the degree’s professional versatility. Inspired by high school theology courses, he also intended to minor in religion, as well. Quickly, however, he found himself entranced by courses exploring religions across eras and geographies. He transitioned the religion minor to a major.

While taking global studies courses offered by the Department of Anthropology, Zhou discovered compelling overlap with the religious topics that fascinated him. Even more, he valued the field’s qualitative research methods — a departure from the quantitative principles of his applied math major — as well as the field’s personal significance for him as an international student. Global studies became major number three.

Noting the growing need for individuals capable of extracting valid insights from swelling data sets, Zhou then added economics and data science as a fourth major.

“Everything happened organically,” says Zhou, who averaged 21 units per semester across his USC Dornsife career.

“I see so many possibilities to positively impact the world.”

A ‘meaningful’ experience

Zhou uses words like “meaningful” and “special” to characterize his time at USC, which he calls packed with “experiences of inspiration and growth.”

In the summer of 2022, for instance, Zhou participated in a summer class on experimental archaeology, recreating and testing theories of how people lived centuries ago on Catalina Island, off the coast of Los Angeles. The following summer, he spent a month in Japan taking classes on Japanese Buddhism and meditating alongside monks.

On campus, he worked at USC Dornsife’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, contributing to a project examining the pandemic’s impact on religious communities in and around Long Beach, Calif. He also supported Assistant Professor of Economics Yuehao Bai on various projects in the rising field of econometrics, wherein mathematical models are used to test economic theories.

Wanting to accumulate research experience before graduation this spring, Zhou completed two capstone projects. Rooted in qualitative research methods, his 40-page global studies project investigates ageism and the digital divide in modern China. A directed research project in economics, meanwhile, leverages data from China’s Peking University to analyze the effects of aging on travel expenditures in China.

“I could have never imagined the experiences I would have at USC and the support I would receive along the way,” says Zhou, who also squeezed in a few mountain biking trips with the USC Cycling club as well as trips to L.A.-area music venues.

Well-rounded and confident

Zhou recently earned the title of USC Renaissance Scholar, a prestigious honor bestowed upon graduating seniors with a demonstrated record of academic excellence in at least two widely disparate fields.

“I appreciate the Renaissance Scholar Prize honor because it fits my personal values so well. To me, specialization is limiting,” says Zhou, who encourages USC students, particularly international students, to be fearless in pushing their limits.

The Renaissance Scholar Prize’s $10,000 award will help fund Zhou’s next academic adventure: graduate studies in data science at Brown University. Thereafter, he hopes to pursue a PhD in economics. Or maybe he’ll work as a researcher at an NGO. Or perhaps he’ll enter an industry like green tech to accelerate sustainability. Maybe all of those things.

“I see so many possibilities to positively impact the world,” he says.

That, he adds, is a credit to the liberal arts education he received at USC Dornsife, where he gained the confidence to probe complex problems and the skills to adapt to the world’s continued evolution.

“I have decades ahead to live as a person, not a machine, so I have to be able to think for myself,” he says. “And I truly believe being well-rounded will help me adjust to whatever the future might hold.”