Zhaowei Chen Overcomes Pandemic Obstacles to Graduate with an Optical Engineering Degree and a Master’s in Engineering Management

Wednesday, July 13, 2022
Zhaowei Chen works with optical engineering equipment at Rose-Hulman.

In May 2022, Chen graduated with a bachelor’s in optical engineering and master’s in engineering management. He accepted a position as an optical display engineer with Leia Inc., the San Francisco Bay Area technology company bearing the namesake of the Star Wars character.

When Zhaowei (Zac) Chen was a junior at Rose-Hulman, he traveled home to China during winter break 2019. Little did the optical engineering student know that when he departed the United States that December, it was the last time he would set foot on campus until August 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While many students in that situation may have given up or substantially altered their academic goals, Chen took a different direction in the 20 months he was away from school. In May 2022, he graduated not only with his degree in optical engineering, but also with a master’s degree in engineering management.

Chen, who is from Ningbo in the province of Zhejiang, China, came to the United States during his junior year of high school. He wanted to pursue engineering and was impressed with Rose after visiting campus and seeing the small class sizes and the school’s reputation as a top-ranked engineering college. Chen’s fascination with display technology and holograms led him to the field of optical engineering.

During his first years in the major, Chen participated in a summer research project designing and studying an automotive laser headlight. In 2018, he won the E2 Global Capstone Design Grand Prize, the top award for the international capstone design competition. He also participated in a summer exchange program with the Kanazawa Institute of Technology in Japan.


Chen was on track to successfully complete his engineering degree in four years when he travelled to China to renew his student visa in December 2019. COVID-19 restrictions in the United States and China halted visa reviews and prevented him from returning to Rose. He took a break from academics until Rose initiated online learning in April 2020. Chen admits that period of limbo — when he did not know if he would ever be able to return to the United States, let alone finish his degree — was very frustrating and difficult. He chose not to wallow in the uncertainty and instead to make the most of the time he had in China.

“I got very mature during the COVID quarantine time,” says Chen. “I realized that learning is not something that’s only done in a school setting. I decided to spend my free time learning about many different things.”

Chen received several letters of support from Rose faculty offering to help him continue his studies in optical engineering. When classes resumed online, he made progress toward his degree, even conducting research projects and internships in China. In summer 2020, Chen worked as an optical engineering intern at Novel Optics Co., LTD, where he reverse-engineered the problem of the decentering of a fisheye camera product. He also enrolled in Rose’s master’s in engineering management program, in which students earn a master’s degree while completing undergraduate requirements as part of the Rose Squared program. 

In September 2021, Chen returned to the United States, and the Rose campus, to complete his senior year. He received admission to doctoral programs at Johns Hopkins University, Duke University and University of California, Berkeley. He also received impressive offers of employment from companies in San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Detroit. 

“I received all those offers because of Rose, and because of the support from professors that helped me achieve so much,” says Chen.

A watercolor painter and enthusiast, he also leaves Rose with a minor in art. His fascination for holograms coming full circle, Chen accepted a position as an optical display engineer with Leia Inc., the San Francisco Bay Area technology company bearing the namesake of the Star Wars character made famous via a hologram.