As part of our ongoing interview series, Vo Ram Yoon interviewed Helen Zhang in April 2016
Vo: Alright, so why don’t we start by having you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Helen: I’m a 2nd year in the College and I’m majoring in Public Policy with a specialization in education policy. I got interested in NSP because I’ve always liked teaching. When I was in high school, I taught a lot. I taught martial arts and some math at my local elementary school and I really missed it a lot in my first year here. NSP is one of the big organizations on campus that I kept hearing about and I thought it’d be a great way to get back into teaching and work with kids.
Vo: That’s awesome! Could you tell me about the site that you work at?
Helen: I work at Carter G. Woodson Middle School, which is a UChicago charter school. I found out about it through UChicago Careers in Education Professions, which is a great program. I’m basically a tutor for a small group of kids every week and they are really great. I like the way NSP sets it up so that you get to work with the same kids every time you are there. You really get to form a real bond with them. You’re their mentor and tutor. You help out with their homework and help them understand with whatever they’re studying in that week like fractions.
Vo: Great! So as part of the NSP program, you’re required to attend one workshop per quarter. Could you tell me about a workshop that you attended that you enjoyed?
Helen: I really enjoyed the workshop from last quarter, which was about non-cognitive factors. It was interesting because it was a lot of stuff that I’ve already been exposed to, but it gave both a cursory introduction as well as a deeper look at cases on grit, growth mindset, and the value of socioemotional factors over test scores. For me, it was fascinating because, when you teach people, it’s easy to get caught up in what the academic goals are. A lot of what school is about is not just necessarily about learning the math or whatever the content is. It’s also about socializing well, about learning how to persevere in the face of challenges, and about learning how to learn itself! The workshop expanded my perspective on what it means to be an educator beyond just teaching content.
Vo: In our education courses, we learn that a majority of students in CPS are racial minorities and come from low-income backgrounds in addition to the fact that the district is suffering from a lot of budget cuts. How do you think working for NSP has brought you closer to the surrounding community as a UChicago student?
Helen: That’s a great question! I really like that I get to work in the South Side. I am from a very predominately Asian and White neighborhood, so I never lived in an area like this. There are places in the U.S where people can go to college and still be in a very insular community whereas here in Hyde Park, it is a different place. It is nice to go off-campus and engage with children who live in areas that are different from where I grew up. Just talking to the kids in itself is engaging and eye-opening because the experiences they’ve had are not experiences that I would’ve imagined having growing up. For us, it’s nice to get an expanded perspective on how life is in the neighborhood if you’re not in this privileged school. Teaching in places like this really hits home that it’s not the case that every child’s neighborhood is a safe and secure place. UChicago charter schools do a great job in providing a safe environment, but that’s not the case outside of school.
Vo: Even before you came to this school, you already had an interest in education policy and research. What do you think that, during the two years you’ve been here, the hands-on experience offered by NSP added to the theoretical education here?
Helen: UChicago really is a theoretical place and it is easy to get bogged down with the books and the intellectualness of everybody at this elite school. This school is hard work, but it tends to have a hands-off approach when it comes to talking about implementation. You can talk about poverty in class or economic theory or social issues and have a lovely debate about it. But none of that hits home quite as much until you’re working with people and children you care about, the ones who are being negatively affected about the issues that we talk about in classrooms in the first place. NSP is a grounding experience because it reminds me that there’s a world outside of our UChicago bubble. The people who end up being affected by policy are the ones who matter and the ones who give me purpose for studying here beyond just learning for the sake of learning.
Vo: That was so touching to hear! Thank you so much for all the time and effort you’ve contributed to the students at your school and I hope you have a great time studying abroad in Paris in the fall!