I’m the associate director of Stanford’s Global Engineering Programs, but I started my life dreaming of being Madame Curie. I was born in a very remote desert town in Xinjiang Province in China near the border with Kazakhstan, and because our school wasn’t very good, my mother, a very wise and brave woman, found a better one 150 kilometers away. One day when I was 13 she and I and my sister waited on the road and hopped onto a truck carrying food to the town where that school was. My mother knocked on the door and convinced the teachers not only to take us, but to allow us to board. They cleared a space in a book storage room for our cots. It was a turning point.
Some of the teachers there had given up chances to work in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai to come to this school where there was the most need, including Li, a beloved physics teacher who became my role model. Later, he encouraged me to apply to Tsinghua University, where he said I should study the latest technology and bring something new into the world. For a 16-year-old country girl it was intimidating. But he inspired me. I was accepted, began studying electrical engineering, and learned to adapt as my world got bigger and bigger.
I came to Stanford in 1994 as a research engineer with the Gravity Probe B program, a satellite-based experiment designed to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity. I eventually earned an Engineer degree here, and worked with the Global Positioning System Research group, but when my family decided to return to China to help care for a family member, I accepted advice from the dean to help develop collaborations between Chinese universities and businesses and Stanford. When I returned here nine years later, that program had momentum, so I decided to continue focusing on it rather than return to research.
Today our Global Engineering Internship Program works with companies in China, India, Singapore, Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United Arab Emirates to give Stanford students real-world international work experience over a summer. The Chinese Undergraduate Visiting Research Program brings the best students from China here to Stanford for a summer to collaborate with our students and researchers. Both are designed to give students an opportunity to understand how people in different worlds live, work, and think, which is something you can’t learn from a book. We call this “global competence,” and it allows you to see the world through others’ eyes. It’s important to us, because engineers working to solve problems or develop products must be able to understand the impact of their work on people in different societies.
The help I’ve received on my journey changed my life, and I want these programs to have the same kind of impact on our students. I want them to see a bigger, broader world where they can make the best use of their talents. This kind of immersive experience is important, not only for academic excellence and student growth, but also to break down barriers to mutual understanding.