When asked about one of the most important takeaways she collected from her time at St. Catherine University, 2010 English graduate Yanshuo Zhang notes, “all the professors were so supportive– they were able to see your unique assets. For example, as a first-year, my English was not perfect given that I was not a native speaker. But instead of pointing out the errors and mistakes I made as an ESL student, my professors saw the potential for me to bring a multicultural dimension to my work.”
This perspective encouraged Yanshuo’s interest in multicultural and multilingual studies, and solidified that she had made the right choices, coming to St. Kate’s and pursuing English as a major and French as a minor.
“I ended up using some of my Chinese language background and cultural imageries in my English writing and speaking. My professors did not criticize this; rather, they saw it as an asset,” Yanshuo expresses.
Yanshuo Zhang was born and raised in Chengdu, China, which she shares is known as the “hometown of pandas,” because most wild pandas live in proximity to Chengdu. Both of her parents are teachers, and she reflects on their great influence on her education and her life, especially in the case of her father.
“He has a dual degree in Literature and Fine Arts. So as a kid, he exposed me to the wonderful world of words and pictures. In turn, I developed an avid interest in reading and writing at a young age,” she says.
Yanshuo’s first language is Chinese, and she started learning English in elementary school. At the age of 16, she participated in an exchange program between her high school in Chengdu and a high school in Missoula, Montana. So, Yanshuo first visited the United States as a second-year student in high school.
Through this exchange program, she developed an interest in the American education system: “The classroom culture felt very free, and everyone could contribute to the class discussions. That was something very new to me as a high school student in China,” she discloses.
The Path to St. Kate’s
Yanshuo’s appeal to the American classroom culture sparked an interest in going to postsecondary school in the U. S. as well. Back home, she worked with a retired professor in her home city of Chengdu. The professor helped Yanshuo and her parents select an American college to attend.
Her advisor, this retired professor, was a huge advocate of liberal arts colleges. Yanshuo mentions that they are actually quite unique to the U. S.– you don’t see this type of education in many other cultures or parts of the world. She was encouraged to seriously consider a liberal arts school for her postsecondary education experience.
“I was really attracted to the idea of going to a women’s college because it sounded unique and I was really inspired by the women I knew who had attended U.S. women’s colleges…. They returned to China and became writers, artists, or public intellectuals. So I was really inspired by those women and thought I would like to be a person like them,” Yanshuo reflects.
Because of this, Yanshuo and her parents decided that she would come to the United States for college and that she would attend a liberal arts women’s college.
Yanshuo applied and was accepted by a number of American colleges (including St. Catherine University). After weighing her options, Yanshuo felt compelled to go to St. Kate’s, because she was awarded a generous scholarship that helped her as an international student.
Big Decisions: Program of Study & Grad School
One of the biggest decisions Yanshuo had to make once she began attending St. Kate’s was to pick her program of study. She only had a rough idea of her main areas of interest– the humanities. As mentioned before, Yanshuo fell in love with reading, writing, and giving presentations at a young age. However, she didn’t know with which specific major she would choose.
“I had a few very influential professors who sort of nurtured my interest in majoring in English,” Yanshuo says.
Within her first year at college, Yanshuo took a couple of English courses. A particular class that she found to be extremely significant was an English literature course designed for non-native speakers. She explains that it is rare for international students to major in English, but by taking that class, Yanshuo had faith in herself to master this foreign language and be so articulate in it that she would continue on to pursue an English degree.
“I remember reading Asian-American literature and multiracial American literature in that class,” recalls Yanshuo, “and I was really pleasantly surprised that as an international student I could read and understand those novels and stories, so that was a huge milestone for me.”
During her first semester at St. Kate’s, Yanshuo took The Reflective Woman with Cecilia Koncher-Farr who ended up becoming her advisor.
Yanshuo shares “Cecilia played a major role in terms of shaping not only my written English but sort of instilling in me the belief that I could translate my Chinese linguistic sensibility and poetic sensibility into my writing and studies in English.”
Within her college experience, Yanshuo also studied abroad in Ireland for a semester. This experience made her think more broadly about the English language not just as a tool for communication, but as a critical instrument for us to make sense of our multilingual and multicultural world.
Cecilia Koncher-Farr also played a big role in encouraging Yanshuo to continue on to graduate school, and talked to her about the above points. Cecilia really advocated for Yanshuo attend grad school because “going to grad school would allow me to explore those issues in more depth.”
St. Kate’s Memories
There are so many memories from her time in undergraduate college at St. Kate’s that Yanshuo treasures.
She remembers her first few days at St. Kate’s. During her first year, Yanshuo lived in St. Mary Hall. She emphasizes that technology was a little less advanced back then, so international calls were not easy to make. In order to call her parents in China from the landline in her dorm room, she had to buy a calling card. The Resident Advisor on her floor really helped her out in this area: “She helped me figure out the calling card so I was able to call my parents in China for the first time from my dorm room. That was one of my first memories.”
Yanshuo also recalls hanging out with a group of other international students at the Dew Drop Pond one day. The group, sitting on the bridge, went around and each sang a song from their culture traditions.
“There was me from China, some students from Eastern Europe, some students from Africa,” Yanshuo remembers. “So everyone sang a song from their own cultural traditions and I think that moment really brought us together beyond the classroom, beyond academics.”
She was also chosen as a commencement speaker, which she remembers as such a beautiful moment. Yanshuo gave her speech in the O’Shaughnessy auditorium.
“The podium was very bright, and all the audience members were very dark, but I could still see my parents– you know, they had traveled from China to see my commencement ceremony. They were so happy” she says. “Sister Andrea, the university president at the time, turned to me and said, ‘Do things to make us proud of you.’ and kissed me on the cheek. That was very memorable.”
Yanshuo’s parents had brought a piece of embroidery from her hometown of Chengdu that had the image of two pandas. Her parents had someone make it specially for Yanshuo to present to Sister Andrea at the commencement ceremony as a token of gratitude for St. Kate’s and a symbol of her own Chinese culture.
“That was such a loving moment,” she divulges. “I remember the cheers of the audience and I felt like that was the peak of my St. Kate’s experience.”
Getting her Doctorate from Stanford
While at St. Kate’s, Yanshuo applied to numerous graduate school programs, one of which was Stanford University. Stanford had offered Yanshuo generous funding to attend their grad program.
“For a few years, I had a fellowship… I was doing my research, taking my classes, and my tuition was paid for by the university. After that, I taught a few classes within my department, so that was a TA-ship. They were both included in my funding package,” Yanshuo says.
Her PhD was in the department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, with a focus on Chinese Literature and Culture, but she continued her interest in multicultural literature throughout her academic experience at the university. So beyond deepening her understanding of chinese literature, she took Japanese and Tibetan language classes along with her other courses.
“My advisor at Stanford said that I had this insatiable intellectual curiosity,” remembers Yanshuo. “I think having that habit of challenging myself really helped because I not only did very well in all of my classes, I also was able to take two languages at the same time.”
Yanshuo graduated from Stanford in 2018 with her PhD.
Lecturing at Stanford University
Shortly after her graduation, Yanshuo began a position as a lecturer for the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford between 2018-2020.
“That was also another transformative experience,” she reflects. “I got to teach about 150 undergrads from very diverse backgrounds. You know, men, women, transgender students, LGBTQ students, multiracial and multilingual students– they were so diverse.”
During her time teaching in the program, Yanshuo developed two different classes.
In the Eyes of Different Beholders: The Rhetoric of Beauty Across Cultures
The first class that Yanshao taught was drawn from her multicultural and multilingual background. In this class, students were encouraged to consider how the notions of beauty were constructed across cultures. For example, in the United States of America, we tend to have a Eurocentric standard of beauty, but where did that stem from?
“Part of that class should be credited back to my St. Kate’s experience because when I was a sophomore, I took a class called the Biology of Women,” Yanshuo remembers. “I remember the professor asked us to find two images of beauty from popular sources…. We had to present those images and explain whether we thought those images were healthy or not– if they were constructive towards women’s self-image or not. That assignment left a very long-lasting impression on me.”
Yanshuo wanted to help her students explore different cultures’ standards of beauty, but also to find examples in popular culture in order to encourage them to think about the Humanities as interesting and relevant fields of study.
Between the World and Me: The Rhetoric of Self and Belonging
Similar to the first class, cultural and individual identities as the main thematic focus. Yanshuo’s second course attracted students who were curious or thinking about their identities.
“College is probably the best time and the most formative time for a person to sort through their identities,” Yanshuo says.
Students of different backgrounds brought their perspectives to the classroom, many pointing out that mainstream pop culture does not empower everyone, especially people of color. Class discussion focused on how marginalized groups find their role models and belonging. Students also talked about how to construct a healthier culture and raise critical awareness about inclusivity.
Research & Writing at the University of Michigan
Recently, in 2020, Yanshuo decided to make a change, and is currently a research fellow at the University of Michigan.
“I think teaching and doing research are complementary to each other…. I see them as mutually constitutive and mutually beneficial. I get a lot of information for my teaching in my research and vice versa,” she mentions.
Yanshuo says she would eventually like to get a tenured job as a full-time professor at a college. Currently, she is working on her first academic book, focusing on multicultural issues in China. She commented that she appreciates the time that she has to focus on her personal research and perfecting her book, which was originally her doctorate dissertation.
“My book talks about ethnic minority cultural movements and initiatives in China. China is quite similar to the U. S. in terms of being a multiethnic country. We have a lot of different minority groups that speak different languages and they have different cultural traditions, but they are living in a huge nation-state,” Yanshuo says, and states the main question of the book: “How do [these minorities] make sure that they can be part of the nation-state but also maintain their cultural identities?”
A Day in the Life
“Research looks different every day,” Yanshuo reveals and she tries to stick to a structured schedule, though her job allows for a lot of autonomy in this department.
In the mornings, Yanshuo sets aside 2-3 hours of research, writing and editing time. She continues her writing, research, and other academic activities throughout the day, and sometimes into the evening. She has a full-time working schedule. Since the book is already written, most of the work she does is editing. She has finished revising the introduction and is on to fixing up the first chapter, which she plans to have revised by the end of November.
The University of Michigan also has a lot of programs, workshops and academic talks that are available virtually. Often, Yanshuo participates in these, and has been asked to lecture for some of the interdisciplinary research workshops.
“It’s really rewarding, having that distinction between reading and writing time and then talking to others about it,” she says.
Advice for Katies
Yanshuo’s advice for current students centers around the theme of courage and to step outside of your personal comfort zone:
- “When you are picking your classes, don’t always take the classes that you’re most familiar with, or that you’ve heard others talking about. Venture into the unknown– your world only opens up when you are courageous enough to do so.”
- “As human beings, we instinctively want to stick with the safe, with the familiar, and with the known… but if you want to succeed in the world– if you want to reach your full potential– there’s so much more that you can do than sticking with the familiar.”
- “As long as you’re physically safe, always try to take as many intellectual and personal adventures as you can.”