By Nina Huang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Edric Zhan’s motto is “Work hard, play hard, and take care of each other.”
Ranked 12th in his class, Zhan will be graduating from the U.S. Military Academy (USMA) at West Point in late May. This is very rare for a Chinese American. In fact, according to graduation statistics provided by the USMA, roughly 6 percent of graduates over the last 17 years identified as Asian Americans.
Zhan’s stepfather, Andy Wang, said that he is part of the 1 percent that the USMA actively recruit and reach out to. Zhan was the only student from Skyline High School in Issaquah that received a letter from the academy.
It never even crossed Zhan’s mind to join the Army when he heard about the opportunity. But after several informational briefings, USMA seemed like a great place with rigorous academic and physical programs. He had heard from past graduates and current students about the unity and camaraderie they felt, which was unique to USMA.
“The Army was something that I needed to do, something that I should do,” he said.
Growing up, Zhan and his younger sister, Joyce, were always very disciplined and hardworking, Wang said.
Zhan and Joyce would help out at their parents’ restaurant, Mandarin Garden, on the weekends.
Despite the siblings’ busy schedules, Joyce said that she knows she can always turn to him for advice.
She said that he was the one who encouraged her to apply to the University of Southern California, where she is currently studying accounting.
“I wouldn’t have ended up here without him. He wanted me to be more ambitious and apply to schools that had more prestige. Now that I’m here, I’m so grateful for that,” she explained.
In middle school, Zhan made Joyce join a mathletes club with him because he thought it’d be good for them to prepare for high school.
“He’s one of the most hard working and dedicated people I’ve ever known. He always pushes himself to the next level, and it’s amazing to see what he will or can do when he has a certain goal because he excels beyond that. It’s almost ridiculous,” Joyce said.
Frustrated by his inability to do a pull-up when they were younger, Zhan completely changed his lifestyle and started working out. Fast forward to his time at the USMA, Zhan won a pull-up competition for his company.
Zhan’s strong work ethic and determination was very apparent in high school.
“He’s very intelligent. He was one of the high scorers in my class,” Zhan’s high school International Baccalaureate biology teacher Gretel von Bargen said. “In a class full of high-achieving and academically-minded students, he even stood out amongst them. I was very excited when he went to West Point, and it’s been fun seeing his progress from a distance.”
Zhan’s love for the sciences was inspired by von Bargen. Biology was his favorite class in high school, and when he got to the USMA, he already knew he was going to study something related to biology, thanks to von Bargen’s influence.
“Miss von Bargen was the best teacher I had in high school, even compared to the teachers at West Point. I learned the most from her and she was an inspiration to me to keep a positive attitude, to work hard, and try to do the best I could do,” he said.
The respect was mutual. Von Bargen wrote a letter of recommendation for his application to the USMA. In her letter, she wrote, “Without a doubt, Zhan ranks in the top 5 percent of students I have ever taught.”
Zhan’s parents were also a big inspiration to him. His mother, Linda Leong. moved to the United States from China in high school and didn’t speak any English.
“She had to do school work and pick up English at the same time. She struggled when she first got here. She would look up every single word in the dictionary, and by the end of it, she got straight A’s — that’s just unreal. I don’t think I could do that,” he said.
“She inspires me to be like her. Even when things get tough, when life is hard, if you stick it through, you can accomplish a lot of great things. My mom is one of the most successful people that I’ve ever met,” he continued.
Inheriting his mother’s determination has helped Zhan succeed at the USMA.
“At West Point, I’ve changed a lot as a person. In high school, I was quiet, was reserved, and kept to myself. It was a challenge coming to West Point because it’s a people business being in the Army. It requires you to be open and outgoing,” he said.
“Race has never been a problem. We’re all part of the same team and people don’t discriminate against each other. Being in the Army means being part of a team forever. Being a Chinese American hasn’t impeded me. If you’re Chinese American, you shouldn’t be afraid of going to military school,” he added.
Zhan was inspired to serve after hearing from the different leaders and speakers talk about their leadership, field experiences, and crazy moments in their lives.
“That’s one of the biggest things that I look forward to, camaraderie in the unit. We’re all invested in each other. It’s awesome taking care of each other and doing the right thing,” he explained.
In addition to his studies, Zhan participates in Sandhurst at the USMA, which is a two-day long military skills competition. It’s a culmination of a year’s long worth of physical training and military skills with hiking involved. Teams from foreign academies participate as well.
Zhan said one of his toughest moments came during a training mission he had to conduct and lead during his sophomore year at USMA.
“I reflected on what I could’ve done better. It was pretty hard, it was one of my low points. In my mind, I was about to enter the real army soon, so I was hard on myself. I don’t have it together and
I’m two years out, I have to find a way to get better at this. I talked to the guys about it and they gave me tips on how to improve. I’ll take that advice and apply it to my future endeavors at ranger school,” he said.
When one graduates from the USMA, they must serve a minimum of five years of active duty. After that, they have the option to extend their active duty for three more years or stay on the reserves.
“This is something our officers preach at the academy, we all look out for each other. I’m all about this: team cohesion, unity, and care. I know many of my classmates are exactly the same and it’s what makes the camaraderie here a little more special than at other colleges,” he said.
As for his future, Zhan plans on serving the full eight years of active duty. He will be going to ranger school next January and looks forward to becoming a platoon leader and eventually deploying.
“I’m excited to see his accomplishments as a second generation Chinese American, to know that he can achieve what he wants to achieve,” Wang said proudly.
Nina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.