Zehua Cui, AM '14

While growing up in China, Zehua Cui became passionate about working with children. Among her early employers in Shanghai were the Fudan Tutoring Center and Playplay Kids Club. But she wanted to learn more about how to help children with socialization and emotional issues as well as how to help children break the cycle of poverty through education. So she turned to the top rankings of U.S. News & World Report, where she found the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. She applied to SSA and was accepted.

Zehua Cui

“My first thoughts were that my educational options were limited in China; I needed to find more resources. I had no awareness of the existence of social work in schools in China, so I am thankful for my first year internship experience with children at Namaste Charter school, which totally opened up a new world for me. The experience broadened my horizon in terms of the various ways in which we can help children. I can’t help but falling in love with the school environment where I can work with the families and teachers and dedicate myself to support children,” Cui says.

Cui was delighted to have found Chinese connections in Chicago, including several Chinese peers at SSA who have since become her friends. Another source of gratification is that she was uniquely qualified to offer support to four Chinese freshmen students who arrived in the United States during her second-year fieldwork placement – Johnson College Preparatory High School (JCP), which is located in the African American community of Englewood in Chicago.

Although she points out that educational settings in China are typically homogeneous, Cui is emphatic in her belief that diversity is important when it comes to education. She feels that the diversity she brings to JCP is appreciated and that her SSA classes provide a great reflection of other perspectives.

In the beginning, Zehua says that she struggled working with children from another culture who spoke a different language. “I had a really good experience with Isela Velazquez, who was my first field instructor. She was empathetic, patient, gave me encouragement, and taught me a lot. I’ve even found that I can build a close relationship with students who are interested in my cultural background. I’ve learned about dispositions for good teaching, including that respect for differences is important to teach and model. Love cannot be racialized,” Cui says.

Having had such a positive experience at Namaste Charter School while holding a growing passion for school social work, Cui applied to the Clinical Type-73 School Social Work and Community School Programs of Study at SSA.

Cui struggled securing a second year field placement but with the support and coaching from members of the field office landed her placement at JCP. Since she was often shy and not always confident when expressing herself in English, Cui says that working closely with her fieldwork instructor was an important complement to the classroom.

“The happiest thing for me was working with my field instructor Shanna Ross at Johnson College Prep. Walking step by step with such a kind and helpful school social worker was the best way for me to learn and grow in my professional development. She believed in my abilities.” Cui says.

Shanna Ross explains, “The staff at JCP work tirelessly to make graduation and college a reality for all of our students. These determined staff pour love, support and dedication into all of the students. Because Johnson College Prep is part of the Noble Network of Charter Schools that offers open enrollment and does not serve a specific geographic area, we need to provide different resources to each individual student that will allow him or her to flourish in an environment with a strong code of conduct. That’s where social work is important.”

“Zehua was an incredible value-add to JCP, as she brought a new cultural dynamic to our learning environment that both our staff and students benefited from. She was the quintessential student: reflective, determined and inquisitive. Zehua made me a better social worker,” Ross added.

Back in the classroom, one of Cui’s lecturers was Andy Brake, who  provided further mentorship to Cui in her development as a social worker. His class exposed Zehua to a variety of issues, including learning disabilities, anxiety and depression, and how these affect the performance of school children. “Andy was so supportive of my learning interests. He helped me to learn how to think critically about problems and to use a variety of lenses to examine issues,” says Cui.

Looking forward, Cui sees a future full of possibilities. “Whether I begin my career in Chicago or return to China, my most important goal is to be the kind of social worker that builds relationships. I want to listen attentively to worries and help parents be emotionally supportive to their children. I want to work with other professionals across disciplines to develop effective intervention strategies in educational settings and in communities,” she said brightly.