by Claire Miller
In the late 1950s, Yali Zhao’s parents moved from central China to the northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, beginning a new chapter of their lives and settling in a place where their daughter would first learn how to interact with people of various religious and ethnic backgrounds.
Xinjiang was filled with people from different parts of China – many of whom moved there in 1950s and early 1960s following Chairman Mao Zedong’s call for young Chinese citizens to develop the sparsely-populated western region – and Zhao became conscious of her hometown’s cultural diversity from an early age. Interactions with people from different parts of China and unique holidays in Xinjiang offered the chance for her to see diverse culture and customs, and her parents and teachers taught her to respect other cultures.
“Xinjiang is very different from other parts of China,” Zhao said. “There are a lot of people of different religions and who speak different languages and different Chinese dialects. Because it’s so different from the rest of the country and because it’s so diverse, I realized how we are all different and how we should show others respect.”
When she graduated from high school in 1983 and was accepted into Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’an, China, to study English language and literature, Zhao often answered her classmates’ questions about life in Xinjiang and became well-versed in Western culture and philosophies.
She graduated in 1987 and while many of her classmates from Xinjiang returned home, Zhao was hired to teach English full time at her alma mater. She taught there for two years before pursuing a graduate study at the Beijing University of Science and Technology, where she completed her degree in English language and literature and taught English and social science courses for 10 years. She was tenured and promoted to associate professor at the university in 1997.
With 12 years of teaching experience at the collegiate level, Zhao came to the U.S. in 2000 and took a research and teaching assistantship at the University of Georgia, where she earned her Ph.D. in social science education. She was offered a job as an assistant professor of social studies and multicultural education in the Department of Early Childhood Education at Georgia State University in 2004, and she was excited to be a part of a city with such diverse populations of people – not unlike her home in Xinjiang.
“I really like the environment downtown, and Atlanta is very diverse,” she explained. “When I was offered a job at Georgia State, I thought, this is the ideal place for me to do my teaching in social science and global education. And there are a lot of cross-cultural and international service and research opportunities here.”
Zhao, who was promoted to associate professor in 2010, conducts research on cross-cultural, global and multicultural education and gives her students the tools they need to teach students from different backgrounds. In 2006, she created a study abroad program in China for early childhood education majors, which gives its participants firsthand experience teaching abroad and the chance to learn about another culture. Since then, more than 50 graduate and undergraduate students as well as several COE professors have been to China for intensive cross-cultural immersion experiences. She has also helped establish university and K-12 school educational exchange programs with Chinese universities and schools.
In addition to teaching and conducting study abroad trips, Zhao is co-authoring a book about Chinese-American immigrant faculty members’ experiences in U.S. higher education settings, and leading a follow-up research project on the study abroad programs offered in her department. She’s also working with faculty in the Department of Educational Psychology and Special Education to recruit Chinese graduate students to take COE online courses and conduct research on how online courses improve American and Chinese graduate students’ cross-cultural understanding. This and other interdepartmental projects allow Zhao to study how Chinese and American education students’ experiences influence their understanding of different cultures and teaching strategies.
“I’m an ethnic minority here, and my passion is to serve as a cultural ambassador through my teaching, research and service. I try to build cultural bridges and work for the common good of all people,” she said. “I want to do my best to serve students with different backgrounds and to help my teachers help those coming from different cultures and linguistic backgrounds. And it’s very exciting when I see my students’ comments on course evaluations, when they talk about how excited they are about what they’ve learned from me and how their perspectives have broadened.”
For more information about the COE study abroad program in China, visit http://education.gsu.edu/international/6233.html.