By Evelyn Pitt Stoller
When Jiajun Zou, a sophomore at Harpur College, moved from the southeastern coast of China to Queens, N.Y., he did not speak a word of English. When he was not taking on extra hours at a Chinese restaurant in order to help his mother pay the bills, he found himself at the New York City Public Library, where he read the dictionary and taught himself English word by word.
“I did not come from a well-off family,” Zou said of the financial disadvantage he faced upon his arrival in the United States. And although this made his educational journey harder, he said he owes his success not only to the motivation he found within his struggle, but also to the teachers that inspired him throughout his educational career.
“My teachers had so much impact on me,” he said. “They did not see me as someone with less potential, and would always spend extra time to help me overcome language difficulty and to help me understand class materials better. Over time, I became someone who developed a love of learning.”
Zou, determined and inspired by his affinity for knowledge and the educators surrounding him, spent as much time as possible preparing for his next step in the world of academia: college.
“I worked until very late at the Chinese restaurant,” he said. “I would get on the train at midnight, carrying my SAT and history books with me, trying to learn the most I could in order to be accepted by Binghamton University.”
With the help of the Educational Opportunity Program, Zou was accepted to his top choice school: “It was the EOP that allowed me to expand my potential.”
Zou’s work ethic did not diminish once he arrived in Binghamton. As a Harpur student, he not only volunteers at the Boys and Girls Club in Johnson City, he also works in the University library and in the EOP tutor center, where he aids students in math, writing, history, and Chinese language.
The relationship Zou has developed with academia has not only inspired him as a student, but also as a teacher.
“I would love to become a high school teacher specialized in teaching history to ESL and bilingual students,” he said. “(Teachers) became role models to me who always propelled me to do better and gave me a light when I felt hopelessness and despair. I wish to be a teacher so I can aspire students like myself to do better.”
The inspiration Zou finds is not solely in the realms of education; his experience volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club has further solidified his dream of working with disadvantaged students.
“As I see that children from poor family backgrounds tend to have low self-esteem and constantly have to prove society of their worth, I feel a (growing) sense of responsibility.”
Zou has chosen history as his intended major because of its universality: He considers history a good way to teach citizenship, critical thinking and moral reflection. Zou sees it as a good medium to help people decide what kind of people they would like to become, and what kind of society they would like to build and live in.
Experiences with undergraduate-level education have further motivated Zou to follow his dream to become a teacher: “My experiences with academics at Harpur College certainly influenced me to pursue a career in education.”
Wendy Stewart, a lecturer in first-year writing at Harpur College and Zou’s freshman year Writing 111 teacher, speaks with esteem about the work ethic evident in her past student: “What made him stand out was his maturity. In my seven years of teaching first-year writing here at BU, I have not encountered another student with such a clear understanding that he and he alone is in charge of his education.
“Jiajun worked consistently to improve his writing and his oral communication skills, both in and outside of class. He related to his peers with acumen and diplomacy; his feedback on process drafts was known to be valuable.”
Stewart said that one of Zou’s Writing 111 essays, written in the spring of 2014, was chosen among hundreds of candidates for publication in Binghamton Writes: A Journal of First-Year Writers, a periodical featuring a collection of outstanding student essays.
Zou continues to learn as his opportunities grow. Just like he taught himself the English language word by word, he takes on his numerous responsibilities with a graceful step-by-step attitude, never forgetting where he came from or how he got to where he is now.
“It’s the history and mission of the EOP that made me deeply in love with Binghamton,” he said. “I believe that students should be given an equal educational opportunity regardless of their family background. Binghamton University did not refuse to give me an opportunity, and had faith that I can do well because of who I am and what I have shown.”
Last Updated: 3/1/17