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Global Visionaries: Dr. Dan Zhu

The Office of Global Affairs is excited to celebrate Dr. Dan Zhu for our October 2022 edition of the Global Visionaries series. The Global Visionaries series is a new initiative to highlight the University of Washington’s global impact by featuring innovative, globally-engaged faculty, staff, and students.

Dr. Dan Zhu in front of a lake

Dr. Dan Zhu began working as the International Engagement Specialist at the VP’s Office of Student Life Division at the UW in November 2015. This position afforded Dan the opportunity to build Unite UW, an on-campus cultural exchange program that has connected 1,800 domestic and international students since its launch.

In September 2019, Dan became Assistant Director of CIRCLE (Center for International Relations and Cultural Leadership Exchange), a new center that serves as a resource hub and a home away from home for 8,000+ international students at UW. One of her accomplishments includes creating Regional Connection Groups, a summer program that connects and onboards international undergraduates before they arrive on campus.

Unite UW

Tell us about your background and experience.
“All of these experiences have helped me grow to become a better educator. And looking back, I loved every bit of it.”

Born and raised in a small village in South China, I learned how to make the best out of the little that I had. After graduating from Beijing Normal University in 2005 as a first gen, I became a middle school English teacher in Beijing. My parents were disappointed because by becoming a teacher, I destroyed their only hope to bring fortune and fame to the family. However, I was more disappointed at China’s testing-oriented education which, in my opinion, squelched kids’ motivations to learn.

Three years later, after I won an “important” teaching competition, the school in Beijing sent me to Edinburgh as a reward to teach Chinese language and culture. During that year, while I got to show a more authentic China through the lived experience of my friends and family to the 400+ Scottish pupils and teachers in my hosting school, my eyes were also opened to many exciting ways to teach and to inspire. Besides whisky and Ceilidh dance, I learned so many wonderful things from my Scottish friends and mentors, including new perspectives of life and of the world.

Holding onto those new learnings, I believed the world would become bigger if I allowed myself to see more. That’s how I came to the U.S. in 2009, specifically to the University of Washington in Seattle, to pursue graduate school in Education (M.Ed.), in TESOL (M.A.), and later in English Composition (Ph.D.). Much more than the degrees themselves, I tutored students from Japan and South Korea, volunteered to teach seniors from minority backgrounds to pass their citizenship interviews, taught after school Chinese immersion classes with small children, and substitute taught with many other instructors’ lesson plans. I also learned about discrimination in Education first hand: imagine me teaching ESL to students who only want to learn from native English speakers; or imagine a Chinese lady teaching American college students how to write in English.

What inspired you to launch Unite UW?
“Unite UW has evolved into today’s equal partnership program to provide a mutually-enriching global experience in a local setting.”

A better question to ask is, who inspired me to launch Unite UW? The answer is that students inspired me. When I was teaching first-year composition at the UW from 2012 to 2016, students shared many of their struggles at my office hours. It seemed that the UW they were experiencing was siloed and disconnected. Many struggled to fit in or to find belonging. I also observed many UW classes as part of my dissertation. Often times, I would see a very diverse class with students from different backgrounds, but deep down (e.g. during peer reviews), there was always this barrier keeping them from truly connecting with one another, let alone appreciating each other. This invisible barrier made a lot of international students feel like guests on this campus rather than that they belonged.

Meanwhile, I interviewed the very first group of the Husky Presidential Ambassadors who just returned from Beijing for a mission to connect with incoming Chinese international students. From them, I found a strong desire to connect with international students and to gain cultural competency. It turns out, the Husky Presidential Ambassadors students were also desperate for a platform to encourage deep cultural exchange. As a matter of fact, they became the pioneers for this program and named it Unite UW.

From there, Unite UW has evolved into today’s equal partnership program to provide a mutually-enriching global experience in a local setting.  Through cultural exchange and bonding activities, domestic students gain different worldviews and enhance cultural competencies on one hand, while on the other hand, international students are introduced to American culture and feel valued and empowered to truly take ownership of their academic and social life here at the UW.

What kinds of workshops and events does Unite UW offer students each quarter?

Unite UW offers a variety of workshops and events that encourage cultural exchange, leadership building, resource sharing, and bonding. For example, as a tradition, Unite UW alumni make dumplings together to celebrate Lunar New Year. During the second week of the quarter, we take the entire cohort of 90 students (half domestic and half international) to UW’s Pack Forest Conference Center for a two-night weekend retreat. Besides various bonding activities, students spend Saturday engaged in Roundtable, a sharing circle where each student shares their personal stories and experiences that have shaped who they are.

According to student reflections, Roundtable has created “magic” moments when everyone is able to let their guard down and open up to each other. Roundtable creates a judgement-free space that blurs the divide between domestic and international students, as one student stated: “When we had that sharing circle at the weekend retreat I realized that despite our cultural differences, we were all united and similar in some way.”

What advice do you have for what we can do to step outside our comfort zone and build relationships with people from different cultural backgrounds?
“Our cultures and backgrounds are part of the stories we tell, and if we’re open to hearing these stories, they become points of connections.” Unite UW Alum, Fall 2017

My advice is to be vulnerable and to really listen! Having listened to more than 20 quarters or hundreds of roundtable stories, I have learned that vulnerability is strength, not weakness.

Our students have translated this for us beautifully:  At the Unite UW retreat, they often spend the entire Friday night learning everyone’s names. We are talking about 90+ students who were strangers a week prior. It can be very uncomfortable to forget or mispronounce some names, especially names from different cultures, let alone building connections with one another. But they keep on trying and learning throughout the retreat: listening to others’ stories, asking questions about their cultures and families, or sharing comments or connecting moments on sticky notes.

What are you most proud of about Unite UW as you reflect on the past seven years?

I am most proud of the good values that Unite UW has passed onto students: to listen, to understand, to include, to embrace, to support, and to love.

Having experienced Unite UW, students have seen the possibility of building strong bonds over differences. In other words, they don’t have to hide their true identities or alter themselves in order to fit in! Good friends or good partners embrace their differences and appreciate who they are. They have also become ambassadors of cultural diversity and inclusion, so wherever they go, they have a sense of responsibility to create a more connected and inclusive world.

Lastly, they have all learned about the importance of taking care of themselves and of looking out for others, by building a support system for themselves wherever they go and by making efforts to become part of others’ support system.

Tell us more about your future career goals. What are you looking forward to?

For the next few years, I will continue focusing on building a support system for UW’s international students. I did not feel that I had one when I was an international graduate student at the UW many years ago, so I made a promise to myself: I would build one if I ever had the opportunity. CIRCLE afforded me that opportunity, so I am very grateful. I am really looking forward to the day when this support system takes a good shape.