One late night at the end of the August of 2008, a quiet, unassuming girl from Shanghai, China, stepped onto the Amherst College campus, still relatively unfamiliar with American culture and looking forward to an education that would hopefully lead to a career in finance or investment banking. Now four years later, Yinan Zhang will be matriculating with a double major in Spanish and Economics, a close familiarity with three different cultures and languages and an acceptance into a Harvard Master’s program to research education. She has still, however, retained her humble and unassuming character, soft-spoken and modest as she described her incredible achievements to me during one hot May afternoon on the first-year quad.
A Developing Interest in Education
“I entered Amherst thinking I might want to go into finance,” said Zhang, who said she was “pretty good” at math and began with the standard economics track. However, she soon discovered that her interests laid elsewhere, and she realized that a career in investment banking wasn’t what she was truly passionate about. A big intellectual inspiration for Zhang actually came from outside the classroom; her internships, all through the Amherst Select Internship Program (ASIP), began to foster in her a growing interest in education. Her experiences working in a public high school in Brooklyn, N.Y. and interacting with kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, interning in a non-profit interested in education and tutoring all pushed her towards exploring education, access and inequality through economic research.
Another important formative event in Zhang’s Amherst career was the Mellon seminar entitled “The City, School, Space” that Zhang took with Professor Hillary Moss. Moss ended up being one of Zhang’s primary intellectual mentors and an inspiration for her academic journey.
“Once a week, we would read historical narratives of urban history intertwined with things like modern housing policies,” described Zhang enthusiastically, her love for that class clearly shining through. “It was a three-hour discussion and a very small class. Moss always challenged us to think in our discussions — she always said that saying, ‘that’s interesting’ is not helpful, and we must figure out what our argument was and the purpose of making it. She was really good at leading discussion.”
Zhang wrote a 30-page research paper for the class, working with primary sources and going to MIT to find original documents about a highway-building proposal through Cambridge in the 1960s that affected the local residential community.
“If the highway were to be built, these people would lose their homes,” said Zhang earnestly, demonstrating the clear passion for justice and intellectual curiosity that together had guided much of her academic work at Amherst. “But my paper explores the psychological impact of the highway proposal on residents.”
At the end of the class, Moss and Dr. Andy Anderson from IT, who co-taught the course, offered the class an opportunity to continue their research outside the seminar, should they express an interest in doing so. Zhang, for whom the class was a life-changing experience, jumped at the opportunity.
“I was very passionate about it,” she said. “It took me a long time to dig through all the data and the files, but it finally grew into an independent research project.”
She continued to work with Moss and Anderson on it, and the three of them hoped to publish a paper collectively about the topic, a remarkable achievement for an undergraduate student.
“The Mellon seminar really challenged me and helped me,” smiled Zhang. “I would recommend that class to everyone.”
A Spanish Invasion
When Zhang came to Amherst, she decided that, despite being bilingual already, learning another language was imperative to a well-rounded education. She took elementary Spanish the fall of her first year and rose from not knowing the language at all to writing research papers in Spanish and majoring in the language by her senior year, a remarkable feat that few other students have achieved.
“The wonderful thing about Yinan is that the entire department knows her,” said Professor Nina Scott, Zhang’s advisor from the Spanish department. “The language instructors had her as a beginner, and the literature professors had her during her later years at Amherst.”
Despite having only learned the language for four years, Zhang displays a high level of proficiency in the language.
“She is so fluent,” exclaimed Professor Scott. “I looked in the directory and discovered she was from Shanghai, but she spoke Spanish so well!”
Zhang attributed her fluency to her study abroad experience in Madrid, Spain, where she was living with a host family and had to speak Spanish 24/7.
“It took me a while to adjust,” she admitted. “By the end of it, I definitely matured.”
While at Madrid, Zhang took in the excitement and experience of a new environment, but she did what she does with all her life experiences: she channeled them into academia. The exposure to a new culture was important to Zhang, not only as an intellectual journey in and of itself, but also as fodder for her thesis and for her further studies that related education and social norms. Already having been exposed to the different societies of China and America, Zhang’s cultural awareness provided the perfect knowledge base to be able to learn from and contextualize her study abroad experience.
“She had to navigate three cultures,” said Scott, describing her with an animated reverence. “She’s not just a theory monk, she’ll be willing get in there and roll up her sleeves and get involved.”
“I traveled around a lot,” said Zhang. “It’s a very fascinating country. It was an awesome experience travelling through Europe, sleeping in a hostel and taking the midnight bus.”
Zhang took classes in Spanish economics, literature and society, continually finding ways to marry her varied interests.
Not Just A Theory Monk
Zhang has always carried with her a strong work ethic — but she refuses to be defined solely by her academic work. While she had been an exchange student for a private high school in the United States before coming to Amherst and was thus not entirely unfamiliar with American culture before arriving with college, being an international student was still a defining part of Zhang’s experience.
“I’m proud to be an international student,” she said, smiling. “Some of my fellow international students are my closest friends. We understand each other well.”
Zhang spoke fondly of the shared experiences of being from a foreign country with her friends, reflecting on how they battled homesickness and dealt with the new culture together.
“It’s funny…but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are unheard of in China,” said Zhang, laughing. “Some things are very different here.”
It was this international perspective that made Zhang get involved with Women of Amherst and the Vagina Monologues, both of which she claims have been an important part of her Amherst experience.
“You don’t talk about the experience of being a woman, sexuality or sexual assault in China,” she reflected. “It was a powerful experience.”
Zhang also loves children and spending time with them, leading to her active participation in the Big Brother Big Sister program.
“I’m interested in being more personally involved with education,” she said. “I like to observe how kids actually are in school, how to become a good role model and the way in which children can learn better.”
Zhang is also a Peer Career Advisor and has taken up several other jobs during her time at Amherst, including a brief stint with the Center for Community Engagement.
“Extracurriculars are a great way to reach out and meet new people,” said Zhang, with her characteristic vivacious enthusiasm.
“She’s not extroverted,” reflected Scott. “But she’s not introverted, either. She has a bubbly personality, and she is a wonderful person to know.”
“She has a very friendly and warm personality,” agreed Adoma Manful ’12, Zhang’s close friend. “Yinan always has a willing ear and kind words to offer when you need some support.”
A Coalescence of Interests
All of Zhang’s activities inside and outside the classroom hone in on one clear focal point: education. Thus, it came as no surprise when Professor Jun Ishii, Zhang’s advisor for her Economics major, described her strongest quality as her certainty and drive.
“She knew exactly what she wanted to study,” he said, “and now she’s getting a Master’s at Harvard.”
Zhang’s thesis related the social norms of a country to the extent to which family background had a determining effect on student success.
“It’s very difficult work, as there is not much data on social norms,” said Ishii.
Ishii claimed that Zhang did a wonderful job and that with better data on social norms, her work could make an impact on education policy. In addition, it is Zhang’s personal work ethic that Ishii most admired about her.
“She is an incredibly hard worker,” he claimed. “I admire how she knows exactly what she wants and demonstrates great dedication.”
Scott agreed, calling her a “brilliant student” who had chosen the right field for herself.
“Her passion and dedication to this field are extremely impressive, and we think they will take her far,” said Kuhuk Bhushan ’12, a close friend of Zhang’s.
“I did very much enjoy advising Yinan,” concluded Ishii. “I think the thesis experience will serve her well as she pursues her [Master’s] in Education at Harvard. Yinan will have an impact in both academic and policy circles. Education policy is full of tough problems. But tough problems don’t scare her. Perhaps more importantly, Yinan has just the patience and soft touch to help persuade others to tackle their tough problems, as well.”
Zhang herself is extremely humble about the promising future she has ahead of her. She softly told me that she had been accepted into Columbia, Univ. of Penn and Harvard, finally settling on Harvard as it was the program that she felt best prepared her to work on the field.
“I wanted to gain work experience,” Zhang explained, in terms of future plans. “I need foundational knowledge, but after that, I want to start working.”
In the long term, Zhang looks forward to doing a job she is “truly passionate about.” With her spirit, enthusiasm and perseverance, it will not be hard to imagine her achieving that goal and great success with it as well