How the drive to make an impact is motivating an alumna’s research
By Lauren Knapp
There was a problem: Online graduate students at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln (UNL) were struggling to find where to go for what and who to call when. And then, Christina Yao created a solution through collaborative innovation.
Yao, a 2014 graduate of Michigan State University’s Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education doctoral program, has been a faculty member at UNL since 2014. In her time there, she has worked with many international and online graduate students, many of whom are taking their first graduate courses and learning how to navigate being a distance student. She teaches in the Department of Educational Administration, where nearly two-thirds of students are fully online.
It can be a tough transition—and it was one that Yao had underestimated when she first started teaching at the university.
“I made some assumptions on what students would know,” Yao admitted.
The more she taught the growing number of online students, the more she realized the lack of consolidated resources was a burden for them.
“Online education is only going to continue to grow. I knew we needed to do better, and have better resources for these students.”
Yao remembered what it was like to learn how to navigate life at UNL as a new addition to the university. She used that experience as insight for what a potential online resource could be like.
She connected with an instructional designer, the campus library and a graduate student, and in 2016, the team launched the EDAD Student Success Center. Aimed at students studying educational administration (EDAD) at UNL, the completely online center was built to help students become acclimated to resources, get tutorials and more.
“Students don’t know what they don’t know, and they won’t know until we tell them,” Yao continued. “This is a place where they can go to find that information.”
Now, she regularly directs her students to the site and remains deeply involved with its curation.
The EDAD Student Success Center is already showing signs of its impact. Users have given positive feedback on the site—and have suggested changes on how to continue to improve its benefits. Faculty found the site so useful that it was expanded from being open to just new students to all current students in the department.
The center is becoming a required part of online classes (including Yao’s), and other departments across the university are determining how it might be expanded. In November 2017, the creators were recognized with an Effective Practice Award from the Online Learning Consortium (OLC). The award celebrates innovations that make quality online education more accessible and affordable for everyone.
WHAT IS THE NEED OUT THERE?
Yao has a habit of solving problems.
She has always been mindful of the greater purpose in her research: how it might make the world a better place.
“I want to be able to use research in my day-to-day practice,” Yao said. “Many times, when we write about our research, the only people who might read it are other researchers, and that doesn’t do a whole lot. If there’s research being done, people need to use it. Education is a practice-based field, and that affects the purpose of whatever I’m trying to study. I always ask: What’s the need out there?”
This drive to make a tangible impact was evident during Yao’s time at MSU.
“Christina was always good at not just doing scholarship for scholarship’s sake,” said Professor Emeritus Roger Baldwin, who served as her academic advisor. “She shared her research with others to impact educational environments.”
“Anyone who has worked with Christina will say she’s dedicated to making a difference,” Amey said. “Our graduates, wherever they go, stay in the field and make a difference. They ask questions we need the answers to—and they feel prepared to do so. Christina is an example of that. She and her colleagues are changing the world.”
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Prior to Michigan State University, Yao had spent seven years in higher education, working primarily in residence life.
Looking for a new challenge, Yao decided to continue her education and go back to school. Though MSU was far from her family and hometown of Savannah, Ga., the caliber and camaraderie of the faculty and students were impressive. She joined the college in 2009 as a full-time doctoral student in the Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education (HALE) program with a general interest in international education.
Following professional development trips to England, South Africa and Vietnam, she was hooked.
The international chord struck close to home: Yao was born and raised in the United States, but her mother immigrated from Hong Kong in 1968 as a young adult. Her mother’s college education was entirely in English, and it was hard for her. She was among many international students who were required to live on campus, learn in English and adapt to the American educational system with little influence from their own culture.
Yao wondered: How is it that years later, the same things are still happening?
She explored this question and others in her dissertation, which she dedicated to her mother.
She examined how a sense of belonging (or lack thereof) influenced the experiences of Chinese undergraduate students living in residence halls in their first year of college. Research from other scholars shows there is a cultural and language barrier with international students, and Yao thought about what it meant that many higher education institutions required students to live on campus.
Later published in a variety of journals, Yao’s dissertation research found that the push to integrate international students often led to distress and conflict as students lost their cultural footholds. By fostering a sense of belonging and ensuring practices are culturally sensitive, higher education institutions can better improve the transition to college life.
The research was an example of successfully aligning personal goals and interests with her academics, said Baldwin.
In 2017, Yao reached out to Baldwin with an update on her career: She had received two external grants to continue where her dissertation research left off. The grants, through the Association of College & University Housing Officers-International and the Association for Orientation, Transition and Retention in Higher Education, will allow her to expand the research to more international students of color at predominantly white institutions.
The global outreach has continued post-graduation, and through links with fellow Spartans.
In one current research project, Yao is collaborating with MSU College of Education alumna Louise Michelle Vital, M.A. ’05 (Student Affairs Administration) and Ph.D. ’15 (Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education). They are examining what it means to be researchers of international higher education who are both insiders (i.e., related to the culture they are studying, such as Asian American or African American) and outsiders (i.e., working with non-American research participants in that same culture).
“We both did an internationally focused dissertation,” Yao said about beginning the partnership. “But were we prepared to do the work? There is an emphasis on international education and competence, but it’s not necessarily translated well in classrooms. What does it mean to do international research?”
Vital and Yao interviewed doctoral students as they prepared to do international research, asking questions about their readiness, how they navigated being an insider/outsider and how they used reflexivity in their research. This first phase of the project explored how doctoral students perceived their preparation—and the implications for how the research played out. Yao and Vital learned doctoral students must show a good amount of initiative to craft their ideal experiences, and that faculty and advisors play a key role in the training and foundation for their trajectory.
“We realized we need to think a lot more about this. This is a big thing,” Yao emphasized.
Now, she incorporates what they learned as a key component in her classes, and even has Vital Skype in to have another opinion on international research.
VIETNAM LOCATION, GERMAN FACULTY, ENGLISH LANGUAGE
An additional ongoing research project connected Yao with another MSU College of Education alumna: Ngoc Lan T. Dang, Ph.D. ’12 (Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education).
During Yao’s time in Vietnam on a college-sponsored study tour, she met Dang, who was an advanced student in the HALE program and a graduate assistant for the study tour.
“Vietnam is trying to change and is relying very heavily on higher education to build their economy,” Yao explained. “They’re opening their doors for other countries to come in and create partnerships in the classroom.”
Yao and Dang, now the acting head of the Language Center and Foundation Year at Vietnamese-German University (VGU), are aiming to answer questions on how these international partnerships affect learning. At VGU, part of the faculty is comprised of German professors; all courses are taught in English.
Among the questions Yao and Dang are asking: How does internationalization in Vietnam affect student learning? How does learning from German or Vietnamese faculty differ? How can we make sure that these international learning experiences are still culturally relevant to students?
Yao received an internal grant from UNL that allowed her to travel to Vietnam to interview 22 graduate students in May 2015, where she was hosted by Dang. She discovered that while learning in English from German professors was certainly a challenge for the students—for many, English was a second language—it was also worth it.
The students were driven by the global economy, wanting not only to get a job, but a good job. With much of business being conducted in English, they knew they needed to learn the language. Where better than at a university where the educators speak English, and are experts in their field? They felt they were receiving elite training, and that the challenging setting encouraged more group work. Students gathered to help each other understand elements of the lesson, building on critical soft skills they will need in today’s world.
It’s the beginning of a larger study, Yao says.
In a collaboration with Dang and current graduate students at UNL, they plan to continue the project by getting perspectives from the German faculty—and then launching into a larger study on student learning at other transnational universities in Vietnam and around the world.
HER OWN PATH
Spanning the globe, and impacted by personal experiences, Yao’s research is committed to understanding and changing education.
“We all have our own path, our own history. You have to bring that with you,” Yao explained about the underlying pattern in her work: fostering belonging and growth in educational systems.
“Whether you’re a first-generation student, an international student, an immigrant … that is the lens you use to try to make sense of your educational context. How do we, as scholars, make education something that is welcoming to everyone? Honors what everyone contributes? It’s important. But it’s also something hard to fight against. I’m chipping away at it one research project at a time.”
Yao, C.W. (2016). Unfulfilled expectations: Influence of Chinese international students’ roommate relationships on sense of belonging. Journal of International Students, 6(3), 762-778.
Yao, C.W. (2015). Sense of belonging in international students: Making the case against integration to U.S. institutions of higher education. Comparative and International Higher Education, 7(1), 6-10.