Two Ways the US Postgraduate Education Rekindled my Passion in Learning: Perspective from a First-Generation Chinese American

Yesterday I shared an emotional journey of my K-12 experience in China and how these years of formal education softly killed my interest in learning and curiosity about life.

Today, I want to take you to another journey of my six years’ graduate school experience in the United States, including two years MA at Syracuse University and four years Ph.D. at the University of Maryland.

I didn’t come to the U.S. until I finished my undergraduate degree in China. Growing up in China, I learned several things well. I learned to obey, to follow orders, and to not question or challenge anything that I was told. Overall, I grew up into a “good” girl just like my parents and society expected.

However, coming to the US shattered many of those aforementioned values and beliefs. There were two facets that were the hardest for me to grasp during my transition to the US; but these aspects were also what I loved the most about my graduate school’s experience. This experience, to a great extent, reawakened my desire to learn and curiosity about life.

Aspect ONE: Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is one of those phrases that a direct linguistic translation from the dictionary is not going to offer much help. I understood the denotative meaning of the word “critical,” but what it actually meant, connotatively, was impossible for me to fathom at the time. As much as I didn’t want to admit,

I lost my ability to be critical. I simply didn’t have an opinion most of the time.

I majored in rhetorical communication for my MA, yet I struggled to talk in class, not so much in the linguistic aspect but content wise. By comparison, all my peers were a lot more talkative and argumentative, in a friendly and intellectual way. I secretively wondered, “Why I didn’t have an opinion?” The struggle was real.

For years, I had simply been repeating what I was told and what the correct answer was supposed to be. During all my years of education in China, I had never been exposed to the concept of critical thinking. Having students proactively ask questions was not a common classroom practice. Often, doing that would be considered a challenge to authority. So, most of the time, I simply sat quietly on my chair, took notes, listened, obeyed, and sometimes my mind wandered away.

These years of passive learning slowly took away my ability to be critical, if I ever even had it. Because of this, I value critical thinking skills among my students more than anything else.

In today’s information age, I think our ability to raise questions and to challenge the status quo is far more important than our ability to memorize facts and information.

Aspect TWO: Interest-Based Learning

Interest-based learning is what I loved the most about my six years’ graduate school experience. Finally, my interests mattered and my opinions meant something. I didn’t have to listen to this expert or that leader, other than myself. So, in a way, pursuing my graduate degrees was also a self-discovering and self-healing journey. I started to get to know myself, discover my likes and dislikes, and academic and personal aspirations.

For all these years, I had been a stranger to myself.

Learning for the first time had become exciting, invigorating, and enjoyable. I fell in love with a research methodology called Phenomenology, a method that allowed me to dwell in and explore lived experience. My brain became filled with ideas and excitement. I loved having intellectual debates and discussions with my peers and professors.

Conclusion

Adjusting to the education system in the US was definitely a struggle. I needed to change my entire way of thinking — one that had been ingrained in me since I was a little girl. However, the struggles transformed me and activated new parts of me that I was not aware of before, and opened new doors of opportunities for me.

My struggle in the K-12 education in China planted a seed for my passion in education reform and identifying ways to make education more enjoyable and relevant. My US experience helped me find a roadmap to pursue my passion. The journey has just begun.


Ai Zhang is a professor, blogger, liver-streamer, and social media (pedagogy) consultant. She received her M.A. from Syracuse University and Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, both of which are located in the United States. Ai is an Associate Professor of Public Relations and Social Media classes. She also serves on a number of social media committees at national communication organizations. As a Social Media Pedagogy consultant, Ai is passionate about helping other educators understand and experience the transformative power of technology and social media, and use them to maximize their impact and potential reach. Ai is the host of a weekly Facebook live show, Classroom Without Walls: Using Technology to Reimagine Education. On the show, she interviews leading professors and professionals regarding how social media has transformed their teaching practice and professional careers, and how they use social media as an educational tool. Follow Ai on Facebook to watch her Facebook show.