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She learns about the past via studies in the present

USC Dornsife senior appreciates history

Songyu Zhu
Originally from China, history student Songyu Zhu rides a horse in Western China. (Photo/Wendy Song)

The first time Songyu Zhu visited her history student adviser Joseph Styles during her freshman year, she knew she was following the right path.

“I still remember the red bricks of the Social Sciences Building,” said Zhu, a senior at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “When I walked into Mr. Styles’ office, books filled his shelves. Being in that scholarly atmosphere, I knew USC Dornsife was the place for me.”

Zhu felt right at home. Her father and grandfather were high school history teachers who gave her an appreciation of learning history through narrative.

“When I was young, they would tell me all kinds of literary and historical stories,” she said. “I’m used to dealing with information in this way.”

Exuberant about her history major, Zhu said the pursuit of learning propels her. It was her voracious appetite for reading that brought her across the globe to study at USC.

Zhu recalled the confident, education-focused protagonists of the American novels she read as a child growing up in Yuyao, China, a two-hour drive south of Shanghai. There was Jo in Little Women, a fiercely independent writer, and Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, who overcame poverty and other hardships in early 1900s Brooklyn, N.Y., to attend college.

“These women were really imaginative,” Zhu said. “They loved to observe the world.”

She recognized herself in some of the characters.

“I’m pretty sensitive,” Zhu said. “I also love telling stories, watching people and looking at how the world works.”

Zhu, who seeks to become a writer and teacher, was inspired by these novels set in the West.

“When I was little, I looked at the map, and there was this pink area that was the U.S.,” she said. “I thought, someday I will go there.”

Determined to build better relationships

Students from China make up the largest segment of USC’s international student population, followed by students from India. USC boasts more international students than any other American institution of higher education, according to the 2013 Open Doors report released by the Institute of International Education. During the 2012-13 academic year, 9,840 international students attended USC.

USC officials attributed strong numbers of Chinese and Indian students to several factors, including the university’s reputation along the Pacific Rim and its commitment to recruiting, which is supported by an expanding alumni base in several Chinese, Indian and other cities.

Zhu was drawn to USC Dornsife, in part, for its small class sizes that allow her to build better relationships with her professors and classmates.

She has enjoyed taking upper-division history seminars, where she studied side by side with graduate, doctoral and undergraduate students. The seminars were small, 15 students at most. “It’s a style I really appreciate,” Zhu said.

Two of her seminars were taught by Professor Richard Fox. In one seminar, Zhu chose to analyze Walden by Henry David Thoreau; in another she compared the teaching styles of educators John Dewey and George Leonard. Fox recalled Zhu’s passion for learning.

“That’s why Songyu liked reading Thoreau and Emerson so much in the seminar ‘Nineteenth Century American Thought,’ ” Fox said. “Thoreau and Emerson were afraid people would worship great writers and thinkers, rather than following their example by seeking out new horizons and creating something great themselves.”

Songyu Zhu is an aspiring writer and teacher who mentors elementary school students through USC Dornsife’s Joint Educational Project. (USC Photo/Michelle Boston)

Songyu Zhu is an aspiring writer and teacher who mentors elementary school students through USC Dornsife’s Joint Educational Project. (USC Photo/Michelle Boston)

A positive impact on people

Zhu has taken the message of seeking new experiences to heart in her scholarship and extracurricular activities. She has worked as a mentor for youth in the elementary schools surrounding the university through USC Dornsife’s Joint Educational Project, among the oldest and largest service-learning programs in the country, and through Jumpstart, a national early education organization in which college students help preschoolers develop their language and literacy skills.

“I love impacting people in a positive way,” said Zhu, who is thinking of pursuing a graduate degree in higher education at the USC Rossier School of Education.

“Students are going to love being in Songyu’s classes,” Fox said. “She’ll light up their minds.”

When she returns to China, Zhu dreams of creating a new university.

“College is the place where you get a multidimensional perspective of the world,” Zhu said. “You can really engage with students with high academic motivation. I hope I can spread my positive feelings and passion for learning to them like my own professors and advisers, and the chair of the history department.”

Drawing from her own experiences as an international student, her advice to others is to be courageous. More specifically, to speak up in the first three classes of the semester. With English as Zhu’s second language, she said the effort to be part of the classroom conversation has helped her to gain confidence in her English speaking and writing skills.

“From the starting point, you need to take initiative,” Zhu said. “If you don’t speak in your first class, you probably won’t in your second one either. Also, if you never tell people what you’re thinking about a topic, they won’t give you feedback,” she said.

“Professors challenge you and help you develop your ideas when you speak up.”

Overall, Zhu said that studying in the United States has helped her to see the world through a new lens: “It makes me feel like my life is broader and more brilliant.”

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She learns about the past via studies in the present

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