“Many years ago, when I came to America as an international student, I had only two giant suitcases with me…” This has become my routine lecture to my students every year when school starts in September. I cherish the priceless expressions on those young faces and the curiosity in those eyes. They ask endless and sometimes silly questions about China, about my childhood, and of course, whether I liked Williamsburg and William & Mary. I always smile at those questions, and answer with details of fond memories.
How could I not love William & Mary? It not only gave me wonderful academic opportunities, but, more importantly, it gave me a solid foundation to pursue a career I love and enjoy. I was lucky to have professors who were caring, supportive, and generous.
About eight years ago, a 23-year-old young girl came to William & Mary by destiny. Back in China I had never heard of the College. I took both the TOEFL (English language exam) and the GRE in my second summer of attending the Beijing Language University knowing I would like to attend graduate school in the United States. Just when I was preparing to apply, 9/11 happened. It was my birthday and it was the darkest moment in my whole life. The university I was attending was an international university with students from over 160 different countries. American students were devastated and scared, as were most of us. Life seemed to be frozen.
After 9/11, many U.S. schools limited the numbers of international students they would accept. It became extremely difficult to get an F-1 visa. Except for me, everyone else who had thought of applying to American schools decided to switch to applying to British schools. One of my classmates gave me all of the application materials she no longer needed, and included in the group was William & Mary. Once I read the information and did some research I fell in love with the intimate campus feel. Of course the fact that the College is the second oldest in the United States also attracted my attention.
If I told my students that my life at W&M was easy it would be a lie. I was in an intense 14 month Master’s degree program. Both the course work and the student teaching were extremely challenging. I only had time to have one meal a day, a big lunch at Matthew Whaley Elementary School. The cafeteria ladies loved me and always piled my plate with everything they had. I didn’t realize until I became a teacher later that you were only supposed to have three out of all the dishes in a school cafeteria!
The winter break was hard. On one hand, it was wonderful to finally have some free time to sleep in, eat, and relax. On the other, not being able to spend time with my family and old friends was depressing. Then the most magical thing happened that winter: I read the Harry Potter books because all my students were reading them. It was wonderful getting lost in Hogwarts with Harry, Ron, and Hermione. I was not lonely any more. Thank you, J.K. Rowling!
I survived my year at William & Mary, and have since decided to return to the School of Education to pursue a PhD in the EPPL Curriculum and Educational Technology (CET) program. My current research focuses on English as a Second Language (ESL) students and Intercultural Competency (ICC). I represent the School of Education on the Reves Center’s International Student Advisory Board where I use my voice to serve my fellow international students.
Jingzhu Zhang was born and raised in Hubei Province, China and graduated from the TEACH program at the School of Education, College of William & Mary in 2004. She became a learning specialist at Williamsburg James City County Public Schools and is currently pursuing her PhD with the School of Education’s Educational Policy, Planning and Leadership (EPPL) unit.