Off to China with my Fulbright Part II By Steven Zhang '12

If I had one word to describe the past year, it would be "open-ended." My Fulbright research project is easily the most open-ended project I've ever done (yes, even more so than UOCD [User Oriented Collaborative Design Class] or SCOPE [Senior Capstone Project in Engineering]).


In June 2012, all the 2012-2013 China Fulbrighters had a pre-departure orientation in DC, where we mingled, heard some senior State department officials talk to us about the importance of representing the US in China, and heard some advice. One piece of advice that stuck out for me was:

  • Project proposal does not equal actual execution of project. The proposal we wrote for our applications was used to communicate intent, but once we saw the reality of the situation upon arrival in China, many things would change. Professors might not be as helpful as one thought. Data might be unobtainable due to political sensitivities.

Thus, when I started brainstorming a plan, I decided to use an effectuation framework to plan.   (I learned this  in FBE [Foundations in Business & Entrepreneurship]  andTEI [The Entrepreneurial Initiative] at Olin, and in my Babson coursework). I would focus on broad personal goals, and see what my resources were once I got to China.

 My broad personal goals were:

  • Do something I'm proud of, and represent that in some external facing deliverable such as a publication, or presentation.
  • Do stuff I could only do in China. More of: going out talking to people, seeing things, primary research. Less of: reading reports, reading papers, secondary research.
  • Have a good work-life balance so I could take a break from the rush of Olin life.

 My project goals were to broadly:

  • Visit as many factories as possible and interview their owners
  • Work with quantitative data and attempt a life cycle analysis on at least one factory.

I would see what resources I had once I got to the ground. It was too tricky to tell without being there. Once I got to China, I would iterate weekly by evaluating my progress with my personal goals, and tweaking project goals.

Casting Nets

I arrived in China in early September 2012. Once I got there, the value of using effectuation became apparent. Many things went "not as planned":

For one, I became a mostly independent researcher, having only minor interaction with my host school and professor.

Secondly, I also realized that doing any sort of quantitative research was going to be tricky, because:

  • Data was hard to obtain from factories
  • Factory data was usually politically sensitive in some way or another, meaning any data I could obtain was hard to trust. For example, I worked with a colleague to analyze an environmental audit report on a company, and it was apparent that the report wasn't self consistent.

I iterated constantly, and had multiple threads going at once (to take cue from my computer science coursework). I just started visiting factories on my own. I worked with a professor on a side project. I went on trips with professors even though their research was unrelated.

Since I was working on my own and had a high degree of autonomy from the Fulbright program itself, the source of motivation was always intrinsic and tied to accomplishing my personal goals. It was a challenge to keep the motivation through really high highs and really low lows.

Fulbright Program Support

While I have been fairly independent all year, Fulbright China has been providing great support and has been instrumental in letting me pursue this research project for many reasons:

1. It allowed me to affiliate with a school, which provides credibility to me while I visit factories

2. It provided full financial support, so I'm not tied to any professor. I'm working with a professor on a side project, but for my main project, I couldn't find a professor who was interested in the work so I just went ahead and did it on my own.

Another really cool thing is that Fulbright is a program of the US State Department. Which means that US China Fulbrighters are part of the US's foreign policy towards China. I felt it especially at the mid-year conference we had in Taiwan in March, where a bunch of US and Taiwan officials, including the president of Taiwan, came and spoke with us personally. Here is a picture:

zhange fulbright1.jpg


In the last few months, my project has started to take shape. Side projects have died off. My project has now become purely qualitative, and my goal has narrowed to understanding the environmental consciousness of the factory owners I've interviewed.

I've visited almost 20 factories, and in the remaining month that I am in China, I am trying to finish up writing articles about my research at various publications.

It's been super interesting visiting factories of varying sizes and industries. 

zhang hightech tire factory.jpg

                                                A hightech tire factory

 low-tech metal working factory.png

                                             A lowtech metal working factory

Interviewing these factory owners about their views on environmental protection has been even more interesting. You can read about one of these interviews (with the owner of an LED factory) on my research website here

zhange fulbright2.jpg

This is an executive of a large chemical company who was so enthusiastic about his work that he insisted on taking us to his company museum after the factory tour! The guy in the middle is Greg Brown, another '12 Oliner who was visiting at the time.


One thing I learned at Olin was the design double diamond: showcasing the converging and diverging thinking needed in the design process.  

zhange fulbright3.jpg

Design diagram (edited) explained here on the UK Design council website


This framework is a good description of my Fulbright experience.

  • The first diamond represents my Fulbright application

○     Discover: brainstorm ideas on what I could do research on

○     Define: write the project proposal

  • The second diamond represents my Fulbright experience

○     Develop: "casting nets" in trying out different projects at once

○     Deliver: converging on the main research project, dropping side projects, and writing up my research results

Going back to my original goals for applying to Fulbright, I think I've achieved them for the most part:

  • Gap year/something crazy. I don't foresee an opportunity to go interview factory managers so freely in the future. Maybe I'll work at a company that works with Chinese factories someday, but it'll always be in the context of a business transaction, not pure research like in my case.
  • A break from engineering. Even though I studied factories, I was really doing qualitative and ethnographic research on factory owners. Lots of interviewing, coding recordings, and writing memos to myself.
  • Chinese culture. Needless to say, one sentence won't do justice on this topic, so check out my personal blog if you're interested.
  • Creative goal. I wrote a few articles for news/magazine outlets, including this one on The Atlantic/TeaLeafNation, and this entertaining factory story on Beijing Cream. You can also read individual factory essays on my research website.

 My Fulbright research experience has been a year to do whatever I want. If you really want an open-ended project, try applying for a Fulbright research grant. It'll be a great time!

Posted in: A Broader World View, Alumni Speak, Because I Wanted To, Scholarships and Fellowships