Environmentalism in Chinese Factories: A Fulbright Story By Steven Zhang '12

zhang.pngHello Olin Community! Steven Zhang here. I graduated in '12 and am currently wrapping up my year in China on a Fulbright student research grant. I am researching environmental consciousness and actions of factory managers in China. It's been a long, challenging, and open-ended year, but also a very meaningful experience for me.


In this post, I'm going to talk about the application process I went through for Fulbright. I'll talk about my actual Fulbright experience in Part 2, but if you're itching to read directly about my research, you can go to my research website: Made in China: stories from Chinese factories.

Why I applied

Coming in to my senior year at Olin, I knew that I wanted to do a gap year, do something "crazy that I couldn't do any other time of my life," and take a break from engineering. I had just finished my semester abroad in France in May 2011, and I wanted to see more of the world.


Another factor was that although I was born, and spent the first 6 years of my life in China, I didn't really grow up in a Chinese-American community and the most regular Chinese cultural activity I did was go to Chinese school to learn Mandarin on weekends. So I wanted to learn more about my own Chinese cultural heritage.


At the same time, I wanted something more than just an experience abroad like I had in France. I wanted to experience China by working toward a creative goal or project of some sort.


Gap year. A break from engineering. Chinese culture. Creative goal. How to incorporate all these goals into one thing, and get funded to do it?

Applying for a Fulbright grant to China seemed like the perfect answer.

The application

But I would have to act fast. The application deadline for the 2012-2013 grant cycle was October 2011. In reality, I had started entertaining thoughts of Fulbright in my sophomore year (inspired by the stories of past Olin Fulbrighters).

Open-ended challenges started appearing immediately: I had to write a grant proposal[1], to research ANYTHING that was China related and had the potential to "improve understanding between China and the

U.S."  With the help of Olin's Fulbright committee, I cobbled together a proposal. I also spent much of the summer 2011 talking to past Fulbrighters (cold-emailing and cold-calling), and emailing potential Chinese professors.

In the end my project proposal was titled "Attitudes and Practices of Resource Reuse and Recycling of Zhejiang Province Manufacturers." In short, I would visit factories, talk to factory owners, and do both a qualitative and quantitative study of how these firms viewed environmentalism and how these views affected their actions. I picked "resource reuse and recycling" to be more politically sensitive. I picked Hangzhou[2] because it was the capital of Zhejiang province, one of several major manufacturing provinces.

I felt mostly unqualified to do what I wrote in the project proposal[3], but I tried to showcase my engineering skills, dealing with open-ended projects, and the ethnographic element of user-centered design, all learned at Olin.

The affiliation

The last piece of the puzzle was securing an affiliation letter written by the Chinese host professor. I had a hard time finding one, as professors were not interested in it for some reason[4]. I finally secured a tenuous affiliation promise after speaking on the phone with a management science professor at Zhejiang University via a contact at Babson College.


But that fell through a few weeks before the application was due, and I was left scrambling to find another professor. I must have cold-emailed 50 different professors of all kinds of disciplines at Zhejiang University. In the end, 3 weeks before my application was due, my affiliation was secured through a contact, of all people, from my suite mate, Sam Sun '12.

The wait

I clicked the "submit button" on October 18, 2011. What a relief! Months of pressure and planning relieved.


Now all I could do was wait.


A really long time. Fulbright China would not notify me of my final acceptance until early May 2012.

My energy for job searching was spent. I just wanted to enjoy senior year. I had no desire to apply to any other backup options, even though I knew I should. I could not apply for jobs, however, since I would receive no final news on Fulbright until May. I brainstormed with Olin's PGP Director Sally Phelps and thought of a compromise: I would do another summer engineering internship. Since I could do both a summer internship and the Fulbright grant, this would allow me to get some more job experience, while still being able to wait for a potential Fulbright grant.


Seeing my friends get job and grad school offers was psychologically challenging. This is something to bear in mind if you, the reader, decide to apply for a Fulbright your senior year. The application-notification lag for all countries is several months long, though not necessarily as long as Fulbright China. Even so, as an applicant, you'll mostly be in the same boat that I was in and not be able to apply to full-time offers. You have to consider the possibility of receiving a rejection letter after the huge wait and having to muster the energy to apply to jobs again.


When the news of my Fulbright award finally came through, I was very happy! Finally, all that work I put in months ago had paid off.   


Watch for Part II describing my Fulbright experience in China!

[1] The Fulbright student program varies per country. Fulbright in China only awards research grants and no English Teaching Assistant grants.

[2] I also picked Hangzhou because I was told it was a nice city to live in. I wanted to decompress after 4 years at Olin, and I wanted to go to a city that was rather developed.

[3] This was a common sentiment shared by many of my fellow Fulbrighters who were recent graduates.

[4] I now know, both from personal and collective Fulbright China experience, the reason. Most Chinese institutions of higher-education place little emphasis on "soft research," preferring to concentrate time on "hard research." Thus my project was too "soft" for most professors.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Aarti Chellakere published on August 16, 2013 12:26 PM.

Field Trip to Harvard's Robotics Lab was the previous entry in this blog.

Off to China with my Fulbright Part II By Steven Zhang '12 is the next entry in this blog.

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