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Professor ventures to College

Kelly Meehan | Thursday, March 30, 2006

Making the drastic transition from Shanghai, a city of 17.7 million people, to Saint Mary’s College, an institution comprised of approximately 1,500 women, never fazed Rachel ZHU and her family.

Since arriving on campus in early March, ZHU, her husband Daniel, a published playwright and 3-year-old son, Ivan, have come to love the quietness of their new home in Hayes Lodge – an on campus apartment reserved for College guests – and the unique opportunities the single-sex Catholic school has to offer, she said.

ZHU was chosen by the United Board for Christian Higher Education of Asia to spend a year in the United States studying the methodology of teaching religion on college campuses. She originally intended to spend the entire duration of her time at Yale University, however her plans quickly changed when Kathleen Dolphin, director of the Center for Spirituality and Religious Studies, learned ZHU was making the trip to America.

“When I found out she was offered this opportunity, it indicated to me that [the United Board for Christian Higher Education of Asia] recognized her leadership skills and academic ability,” Dolphin said, who was informed of ZHU’s abroad plans from two friends who regularly teach at Fudan University in Shanghai, where she is a professor.

As one of only four female faculty members in Fudan’s religious studies and philosophy programs, spending time in an all female environment proved especially significant for ZHU.

“There is one very important impression I get here,” she said. “All China is like one big machine, but here everyone is very gentile, humanistic and very thoughtful.”

ZHU began her year abroad at Yale in September 2005, where the University then allowed her to complete a portion of her term at Saint Mary’s. ZHU audits courses and regularly interacts with students at the College.

“It is a very good experience to study Catholicism for many years, and it is good to study at a Catholic school,” she said.

ZHU serves as the assistant director responsible for planning the religious studies program at Fudan, where she works to collect curriculum, arrange conferences, initiate search committees and grant proposals.

ZHU said she could not help but notice the drastic difference between courses at the College compared to those at her university in Shanghai.

“Most [Saint Mary’s] students have a relative background different to my students back in China, ” she said. “Most [Fudan students] have an anti-religious attitude … I worry if I teach in a certain way I am evangelizing them.”

The students at Saint Mary’s are more open to various religious ideas and enjoy discussing faith in their everyday lives, ZHU said.

“They really reflect on issues that deeply affect their lives – even those that do so subconsciously,” she said.

ZHU said she hopes to incorporate these tactics into her courses at Fudan, and has realized “interpersonal engagement is much more important in the classroom than sitting down and writing.”

Dolphin said ZHU’s learning exchange is not one-sided. The College community’s awareness and knowledge of Catholicism in China continues to grow and other worldly issues from ZHU and her family, she said.

“Having ZHU and her family here has been delightful,” Dolphin said. “I have even learned a little bit of Chinese.”

Dolphin was able to invite ZHU to campus through the continuation of a grant that allows her to host a diverse group of resident scholars through 2008.

“[My family and I] come from a very big city, so we enjoy the quietness of campus and the friendliness of people,” ZHU said. “It is a very small college and all people seem to have a very close relationship. I am very impressed.”

ZHU will return to Yale in early May and complete her abroad studies in June. She said she will miss the College, its people and her time spent here.

“My husband and I have been to many big American cities … but we like it here the best,” she said.