Zehua Cui, AM '14

Learning to develop effective intervention strategies in educational settings

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 (SSA). 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,” Zehua says.

Zehua 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, Zehua 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,” Zehua says.

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

With the support and coaching from members of the field office, Zehua landed her second year field placement at JCP. Since she was often shy and not always confident when expressing herself in English, Zehua 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,” Zehua 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 Zehua’s lecturers was Andy Brake, AM ’08, PhD ’14, who provided further mentorship to Zehua 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 Zehua.

After graduating from SSA, Zehua brought this critical lens into her work as a school social worker at UNO Charter School in Chicago. She enjoyed and gained much from this experience; however, soon she began to see that a lot of issues required more than thirty-minute sessions with her students. “SSA broadened my vision to what it means to be a social worker. It’s not just about working with students, I have to advocate for them as well,” she explained. In order to do this, Zehua felt that she needed a deeper understanding of adolescent development, so she decided to go back to school. She recently finished her first year in the Human Development and Family Science PhD program at the University of Georgia. Zehua says that she would like to continue doing research and combine it with practice in the future.

In reflection, Zehua says that SSA equipped her with experiences that enriched her life both professionally and personally. “SSA has given me a set of skills to work effectively with youth, but also to work with professionals in other fields. And at SSA, I enjoyed being around people that were passionate about helping vulnerable populations.”

No matter where her career takes her, Zehua knows she has a strong foundation that will stay with her. “I’ve been a social worker, so I always will be,” she says.