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Published: February 02, 2016

Chinese Graduate Student Plants English Garden

When graduate student Yafeng Zhang M.S. ’16 came to Tampa from China, it wasn’t just a foreign land. It was like being on another planet.

With little English, it was a challenge even to go to the grocery store. Everything looked different. When it came to classwork, she didn’t know what a syllabus was and had to spend a half-day reading and translating it word by word. She didn’t know about Blackboard or how to order a textbook online.

“We faced difficulties, but we got help,” said Zhang, whose son joined her in Tampa months after her own arrival. “I’m so thankful to my professors and friends who helped me.”

Zhang, who is studying to receive her master’s in accounting and a master’s in finance, received her undergraduate degree in China where she was the Chinese equivalent of a CPA for 10 years. She worked as the chief financial officer of a mid-size company there, developing relationships with U.S. businesses. That’s how she first traveled to the U.S. and why she decided to learn English.

At the recommendation of the coordinator of one of her business trips, Zhang enrolled in UT’s ELS Language Center on campus to study English for four months back in 2011.

“I came to learn English, but in the four months I decided to pursue a degree here,” said Zhang, who quit her job a year later and made a plan to study English intensely for six months so she could meet the requirements of the IELTS, an international standardized test of English language proficiency.

She arrived back at UT in November 2012 and, to her surprise, she scored high enough on the test that her UT admissions officer gave her the good news early — she would start spring semester, January 2013.

“I studied a lot,” she said. “I would study all day.”

It was a lot of work, for both Zhang and her son, Junhao, a seventh grader. But in the challenge, she felt called to make it easier for others.

“Through the experiences of my son and I, we wanted to help other Chinese students,” said Zhang, who in late 2015 created a free, online program for Chinese speakers to learn English.

My English Garden hosts video tutorials on YouTube and Tencent, the Chinese version of YouTube, which are accessible to people of all ages. The videos cover language as well as arithmetic, U.S. culture and science. After a month of being online, she has 70 videos available with a total of more than 6,000 views on Tencent.

The live chat feature pairs Chinese students, from kindergarten through high school, with an English tutor here in the U.S. Zhang’s son talks with 13 students a week, helping each with pronunciation and conversational English.

She hopes to increase their offerings, such as doing audio recordings specific to each student’s needs, and would like to pursue nonprofit status. She has 40 total volunteers with My English Garden helping with everything from marketing to video production. Of those, 10 are students helping with the live chats.

“Everything we do is worth it,” Zhang said. “I see it in the students’ faces on Skype and in their mothers’ feedback.”

Having personal perspective of the culture plus being a parent, Zhang said she knows what is important for the Chinese speakers in learning English. And she hopes to inspire others to pursue their passions.

“Maybe students will look to me when considering their life’s goals,” said Zhang. “If I, at 39, can go to another country, get two master’s degrees and start this company, they can follow their dreams too.”

Have a story idea? Contact Jamie Pilarczyk, Web Writer
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