Shu Zhou     by Shu

As an international student from China, it was hard for me to make the decision to  study abroad and leave my friends and family behind. It became even harder when I needed to choose a PhD program. I mean, wherever I chose is where I would stay for at least 4 or 5 years, and there are so many options! I travelled around the U.S. for campus interviews and visits, and sought advice from many of my PhD friends. After months of exhausted researching, my final decision was made in April 2014. While some other programs appeared attractive as well, Houston and the GCSW have a couple of strengths that are very important for me and my family.

  1. Funding: Most importantly, GCSW has Graduate Tuition Fellowship that can cover my coursework tuition. In addition, I was offered a research assistant position that provided a monthly stipend and President-PhD scholarship. On top of that, I had regarding say which professor I would work for. With the 6.5 currency exchange rate between Chinese Yuan and U.S. Dollars, I would not have been able to come here without the helpful financial package. Actually, I was surprised that international students are eligible for many of GCSW’s funding sources, just like domestic students. The flexible financial support not only brought me an educational opportunity, but also warmed and inspired me emotionally in the spirit of “borderless education.”
  2. Study Abroad: I have experienced huge personal and professional benefits from studying abroad in the U.S. I highly cherish the chance to explore more about the world, especially before I carry more family responsibilities like parenting. I was excited to know that GCSW leads many study abroad trips to a variety of countries and regions. For example, Mainland China, Hong Kong, Mexico, Turkey, Russia, Cuba and U.K. are recent study abroad options, and the list continues to grow. It is convenient that these study abroad courses are scheduled at different times throughout the semester and selectable for both MSW and PhD level students.
  3. Student Organizations: Student organizations are definitely an important part of my school life because loneliness is one of the biggest problems for international students. We face language challenges and culture barriers on a daily basis. As a prospective student back in 2014, I was aware that PhD cohorts tend to be comprised of a very small number of students. That made me value the role of student organizations in my PhD life even more. I was glad to learn that GCSW has many interesting student organizations that represent different academic, professional and cultural interests. For example, the Association of Asian American Social Workers, Hispanic Student Association, MACRO Student Organization and Clinical Leadership Society are a few popular student organizations at the GCSW. They actively promote professional and social activities among social work students. I desperately needed such opportunities to expand my social network and support system.
  4. Diversity-friendly: Another factor I considered when selecting a school was whether the university and the city are diversity-friendly. As a minority immigrant, I want to be safe and comfortable in the community where I stay. As a major port city, Houston is the most diverse city in the nation. It is amazing to me that over 90 languages are spoken here! When I was here briefly for my campus interview, I had the chance to meet and talk with professors and students from different cultural heritages. I felt accepted and welcomed. I knew I wouldn’t need to worry about being a “stranger” in public due to my race and appearance. The diversity of people and cultures also had another unexpected benefit: besides New York and California, Houston probably has the largest and best China Town in the U.S.! I absolutely enjoy their Asian supermarkets and restaurants with delicious authentic Chinese food.
  5. Opportunities: As a married student, I had to keep my spouse’s needs in mind and ease our family relocation as much as I could. When I was applying for a PhD program, my husband, who is also Chinese, was about to get his master of economics. We agreed that I would go to a place that could provide some good opportunities for him as well. Houston was a great choice for us because he didn’t need to decide if he will study or work at that point. Regarding PhD-level educational opportunities, there are many options such as UH, UH-Downtown, Rice, and Houston Baptist University. As for employment, oil industry companies and banks are all over the place. Our Chinese friends who work in Houston told us local companies welcome international employees, which was very important for us.
  6. Future Career: Since I want to return home to China after graduation, I evaluated how GCSW can help my future career in China. I met with some professors who originally came from China and learned that they had conducted numerous research projects about Asian and Asian-American populations. They had also collaborated with other Chinese professors and visiting scholars. Of course, they have maintained good relationships with different universities in China. Our conversations comforted me and assured that I would be able to continuously build up my professional network and research projects with their resources and support, instead of starting over after moving back to China. Meanwhile, I still needed to be prepared to work in the U.S. following graduation just in case. Following the suggestions of my PhD friends and with the help of Google and Facebook, I tracked down the current employment of some past PhD graduates of GCSW. Apparently, they were competitive in the job market, especially in the state of Texas. The search results gave me some hard evidence to prove the GCSW’s reputation and quality of education. My strong confidence in my future career began at that point, even before I actually started the PhD program.

It has been a long way from China to Houston, and my expectations are as high as my investments. As a 2nd year PhD student, I won’t lie and say that my first year here was perfect; growing always comes with pain. What I can say is that the primary needs of me and my family have been satisfied here. We appreciate the many wonderful strengths of Houston and the GCSW!

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