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Global Visionaries: Dr. Wei Zuo

The Office of Global Affairs is excited to celebrate Dr. Wei Zuo for our April 2024 edition of the Global Visionaries series. The Global Visionaries series highlights the UW’s global impact by featuring innovative, globally-engaged faculty, staff, and students.

Dr. Wei Zuo

Dr. Zuo, Adjunct Assistant Professor, English and Instructional Consultant, Center for Teaching and Learning, UW Seattle (CTL), describes her experience promoting inclusive and culturally-responsive teaching practices, supporting the diverse needs of international student populations, leading study abroad programs, and providing trainings to educators around the globe.

Dr. Zuo obtained a M.A. in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a M.A. in Education Leadership & Policy Studies (EDLPS), a M.A. in Economics, and a Ph.D. in English: Language & Rhetoric from the University of Washington. She has held the role of Instructional Consultant at the Center for Teaching and Learning, UW Seattle for the past 8.5 years. Dr. Zuo’s prior experience includes working as a Graduate Student Advisor for the UW McNair/Earl Identification Program, serving as a Chinese Instructor at Seattle Pacific University, working as a Graduate Student Assistant at the UW Language Learning Center, teaching English at the New Oriental School in Shanghai, China, and serving as a part-time Chinese instructor at Fudan University in China.

Tell us about your background and experience.

I am originally from Changsha, the capital of Hunan province in China, known for its spicy food and located along the Xiang River, which goes into the Yangtze River. In 2008, I earned a B.A. in Journalism and a second B.A. in Teaching Chinese to Speakers of Other Languages (TCSOL) from Fudan University in China. After graduation, I joined the New Oriental School in Shanghai — one of the biggest English educational institutions in China — and worked as an English teacher for two years to help Chinese students who planned to study abroad.

In 2010, I entered the University of Washington as an international student. I love learning so much and taking on challenges. I was also eager to get a well-rounded education. Within five years, I was able to earn three master’s degrees — a M.A. in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a M.A. in Education Leadership & Policy Studies (EDLPS); and a M.A. in Economics — as well as a Ph.D. in English: Language & Rhetoric. Even though I came to Seattle with a relatively good grasp of English and cross-cultural understanding as a previous educator, I found it much harder to adjust than I expected. I felt isolated, partly because my classmates were much older than me and they had family and jobs, and it was very hard to find scholarships as an international student. It took me a few quarters to find my way. I found mentors such as Dr. Min Li from the UW College of Education and Dr. Dan Zhu who was a year ahead of me in the program. They validated my concerns, shared information, boosted my confidence, and provided me with a lot of support and encouragement. I also found community in the International Educators at College of Education (IECE), a student organization in the UW College of Education for international educators, and served as President in my second year at the UW as a way to give back.

After graduating from the UW in the spring of 2015, I joined CTL as an Instructional Consultant in order to hone my skills in teaching and learning and to further increase UW’s capacity in inclusion and equity by supporting all instructors, including international educators, and those who teach international students.

How did your experience as an international student inform your approach to your PhD dissertation?

My experience made me aware of the stereotype that Chinese students are quiet and often sit in the back and don’t participate. However, in my experience as an international student, Chinese students had many different approaches to their education. Some were more talkative and willing to lead group discussions. Some preferred to not say much and focus on their studies. Some loved to go to office hours frequently to ask questions, while some would not go until they had no other options. It impressed upon me how much nuance there is to consider —their personality, their parents’ occupation and education background, their prior experience abroad, and many more.

My experience also taught me how important it is to ask for help when you are struggling. It’s easy to be shy and to worry about others judging you. However, something as simple as going to office hours can make a huge difference. There can be a perception among some international students from China that if they attend office hours and ask a lot of questions, their professor would think they did not understand the coursework. However, I found if one attended office hours, and was prepared and respectful of the professor or TA’s time, he or she could get the needed answers and walk away with more confidence.

After struggling to navigate my first few quarters at the UW, I started connecting with other international students, particularly other international students from China, to learn about their experiences navigating the university academically, socially, and culturally. I conducted a pilot study during one of my M.A. degrees and Professor Priti Sandhu at the UW English Department saw potential in me and encouraged me to consider pursuing a Ph.D. degree. I never thought of that as even an option before. I thought it would be too advanced and too complicated. I took the smaller pilot study and turned it into a larger Ph.D. dissertation, still focusing on the experiences of international students from China at the University of Washington, but with a more systematic and scientific approach to my research, including data collection, and data analysis. I was lucky that my dissertation has been supported strongly by my advisor Professor Sandra Silberstein throughout the process. As I was wrapping up my Ph.D. dissertation, I felt a strong desire to share my research findings in a more tangible, friendly, and approachable way that would make it digestible for the entire UW community — such as faculty, advisers, and students.

Dr. Zuo’s Ph.D. Dissertation

Exploring Academic Socialization and Identity of Chinese Undergraduate Students in the U.S.

Read Now

I reached out to the UW Chinese Students & Scholars Association (CSSA) and suggested that I host an event where I could share the highlights of my research findings in Chinese and give tips and advice to international students from China. About 100 people showed up to the event hosted in Chinese at Savery Hall. I wanted to further expand the dissertation’s influence and share with a wider audience. With the support of Undergraduate Academic and Affairs (UAA) and Undergraduate Advising , I hosted a sharing event in English for advisers and staff who support international students at the UW. One of the attendees was Katie Malcolm from CTL. She encouraged me to take things a step further and to adapt my research findings to more of a pedagogical focus on teaching and learning. We ended up working together to host a workshop at the HUB on how international students experience learning at the University of Washington. About 80 faculty, TAs and staff educators participated and had a great discussion. This event helped connect me closer to the scholarship of teaching and learning.

How did you promote cultural understanding as a volunteer at Chinese Radio Seattle?
Chinese New Year Gala (second from left)

After I connected with the UW Chinese Students & Scholars Association, I was asked to host their annual Chinese New Year Gala. I was very outgoing and I wasn’t afraid to emcee on a stage bilingually. After the gala, the owner of Chinese Radio Seattle approached me and asked if I would be open to serving as a volunteer. At that time, they rented a radio station in Bellevue but they needed more Chinese and English speakers for their programming. I started out by interviewing people about Chinese arts — such as a group of students from Nanjing University about their traditional Chinese instruments or someone who has spent 50 years of their life dedicated to calligraphy— to help spread a deeper understanding of Chinese culture in the United States.

My experience volunteering as a DJ for Chinese Radio Seattle from 2012-2018 was very enriching. It was really fun to meet all kinds of people and to make new friends. I really enjoyed helping to create cross-cultural connections in the Seattle metropolitan area. For example, I hosted bilingual events for Microsoft Asian Spring Festival, Seattle Chinese Radio, and Seattle Songs and Dances Ensemble. I often felt like a bridge, connecting the cultures of the United States and China. People who listened to our station came with all kinds of backgrounds and levels of experience with China. It involved a lot of code switching and thinking on my feet to make sure I was catering to our diverse audience of listeners who tuned into the radio or listened through the internet.

I often felt like a bridge, connecting the cultures of the United States and China.

Tell us about your experiences working in Japan, China, and Singapore.
Workshop at Waseda University

In 2019, I spent four months in Tokyo at Waseda University. When I first joined CTL as an Instructional Consultant, Waseda University had been sending small cohorts of faculty (15 to 20 at a time) to the University of Washington annually for faculty development. CTL used to host workshops, microteaching sessions, and welcome events. It was an annual opportunity to meet with colleagues from Japan who were not all Japanese. They came from all over the world, even though they were based in Japan at Waseda University, to learn about active learning and educational design. I was invited to go to Waseda University to help offer professional development training to a larger group of their faculty and TAs. I conducted workshops, offered teaching strategy consultations, observed classrooms, provided constructive feedback, and helped review their syllabi. It was a huge learning experience for me to learn more about teaching culture at Waseda University. I’m grateful I was able to experience that before the COVID-19 pandemic.

With UW students in Beijing

I also co-led a study abroad program to China for three years with Dr. Kristi Straus from the UW College of the Environment. The program was a “Global Flip” in collaboration with Dr. Xi Lu at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. Undergraduate students from Tsinghua and the UW watched the same lecture videos and then interacted at their respective universities before collaborating together in person in China over the course of ten days. The program focused on sustainability, understanding the ways that the U.S. and China contribute to unsustainability, and exploring the unique American and Chinese approaches to solutions. My primary role was to help design the learning components of the program, especially cultural awareness and to serve as a cultural ambassador for the UW students — some were international students from China, some were Chinese heritage students who wanted to learn more about their culture, and some were American students who wanted to learn more about China.

In my work with CTL, I worked with my previous colleague Karen Freisem (who retired a few years ago) to take the lead on hosting an online learning community called “Evidence-based teaching: Flipping the Classroom”. We organized monthly Zoom discussions with participants from seven Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) institutions, including Tsinghua University, Waseda University, University of Malaya, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, National University of Singapore, University of Southern California, and the University of Washington. Ultimately, we explored more about how flipped classrooms provide flexibility in the learning environment, foster problem-solving and critical thinking skills, and facilitate peer learning and group work. We were able to present our findings from this initiative in Singapore at the APRU Annual Technology Forum and also in Norway at the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL) conferences.

What kinds of inclusive and culturally-responsive teaching practices can UW faculty and graduate teaching assistants adopt to support international students?
Presenting at a UW new faculty orientation

Some simple yet effective practices include:

  • Learning to correctly pronounce the names of your students. You can learn from your students how to pronounce their names and have them help you to make sure you say their names correctly.
  • Creating opportunities for students to introduce themselves and to meet their peers to establish relationships from the very beginning.
  • Setting clear and explicit expectations. For example, explaining what office hours are for and who can/should go there (given that different cultures have various understandings of office hours) or clarifying what is considered acceptable for teamwork and collaboration in your class.

It makes a huge difference when instructors create a welcoming and inclusive space for all students, whether it’s sharing their own cultural identity, experience working or studying abroad, learning a new language, or navigating a different environment. All of the practices I suggested above are not only helpful in supporting international students, but in supporting all students. I believe it can help all learners when instructors incorporate continuous reflection and an inclusive mindset into their pedagogy.

It makes a huge difference when instructors create a welcoming and inclusive space for all students.

What are you most proud of about your work at the Center for Teaching and Learning, UW Seattle?

I am very proud of many things! I am delighted that I can help UW instructors and students, bring evidence-based teaching methods and best teaching practices to instructors, offer support and understanding for educators who care deeply about their students’ learning, share cultural awareness and respect to diversity with people I work with, and make the UW a more inclusive learning space for all learners, no matter where they come from and what languages they speak. Whenever there are gaps between instructors and students, I see myself as a bridge between different cultures. I want to fill those gaps using my skills and knowledge, personal background and experience, as well as my positive attitude.