Education

GGC’s Teacher of the Year

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Zhang follows her dream from a remote Chinese village to Georgia’s highest teaching honor

It’s almost 10 p.m. and a campus police officer is making his rounds to clear Georgia Gwinnett College’s buildings for the night. He stops by Dr. Mei “Miranda” Zhang’s office, and like many other nights, he finds
her with students, having a study session.

Sometimes, she is found working with students in the library or in one of the college’s many study areas.

At a college known for its unusually engaged and caring faculty, Zhang is particularly dedicated to helping her students succeed. She’s also considered a tough instructor, teaching some of the School of Business’ most demanding, upper-level courses. This includes Strategic Management 4700, the capstone class required of graduating business majors.

“Students dread taking this course. They expect to struggle and not do well under Dr. Zhang,” said Dr. Lois C. Richardson, interim senior vice president of Academic and Student Affairs and provost. “However, by the end of the semester, they are writing thank-you notes to her though our ‘Thank a Teacher’ program and inviting her to watch them graduate. That is a sign of an excellent teacher.”

In fact, Zhang’s students nominated her for the 2015 University System of Georgia (USG) Felton Jenkins Jr. Hall of Fame Faculty Award, the highest teaching award given to faculty at the system’s 29 colleges and universities. Known in shorthand as the Regents Teaching Excellence Award, it is earned by only a handful of the university system’s thousands of faculty.

Zhang, professor of finance and economics, recently became the fifth GGC faculty member to win this prestigious honor. She received her award at the Regents Scholarship Gala this spring.

Zhang found her passion for teaching many years ago, on the other side of the globe, in a remote mountain village in northeastern China.

Getting to the village of Qiankan required a two-hour car ride from her native city of Dalian, followed by a six-hour hike up a mountain. Qiankan’s location and lack of phone service worried her parents but did not deter Zhang, then 18, from a volunteer opportunity to teach there for a summer.

“Being a college professor was my childhood dream,” Zhang said. “I was educated from a young age that teaching is one of the best and most rewarding professions a person could choose to undertake.”

Zhang taught math, language, science and history to about 100 students aged 10-15.

“Once I saw the faces of the children and started teaching, I was hooked,” she said. “As each of the children started to be more confident every day and raised their hands to answer my questions, I knew I had found my calling.”

At the end of the summer, the children begged her to stay. The poverty-stricken region had difficulty retaining teachers and the students said they loved learning from her, so Zhang decided to extend her summer teaching experience to a year-long job. Concerned, her mother made the long trip to Qiankan to ask her to come home, but the young teacher would not leave her students.

The following year, Zhang began pursuing her college education. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Dongbei University of Finance and Economics in Dalian. She then left China to attend the University of Akron in Ohio and Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss., where she “fell in love” with the subject of international business and earned her Ph.D in economics. She taught at Mercer University in Atlanta for 12 years. In 2007, she joined the faculty at Georgia Gwinnett, where her personal educational philosophies meshed with the new college’s unique mission and vision.

“Dr. Zhang recognized the importance of students at an access, diverse institution being exposed and challenged to rise to the same standards of excellence expected of them in the world of business,” said Dr. Stas Preczewski, GGC president. “This aligns with our commitment to provide a world-class education, no matter our students’ levels of academic preparation, learning styles, financial barriers or work schedules. She firmly believes that students at our institution deserve the same academic opportunities and challenges as students elsewhere.”

Zhang expects the best from her students, regularly assigning 15-20 page research papers and frequent homework. However, she follows this up by providing the help students need to meet her high performance expectations. She mentors 40-70 students each semester and offers extra study sessions for each of her classes. She provides individual tutoring, and enjoys interacting with students both in and outside of class.

“I believe it is not only my job to teach students the course material, but to improve their ability to use critical thinking skills, develop communications skills, grow and further business people, understand the international business environment and perform ethically in all business matters,” Zhang said.

Known for innovative instruction, Zhang helped incorporate the Business Simulation Game (BSG) into the senior capstone class. The BSG involves about 50,000 undergraduate and graduate students in around 3,000 classes at 400 colleges and universities in more than 50 nations in a global competition that simulates real-word international business. Student teams must run and grow a simulated company better than other teams, and are rated on various factors.

Zhang’s students compete against teams from some of the world’s top business programs, including many classes of graduate students. Despite the odds, Zhang’s students frequently earn “Top 100” honors in the BSG, something unexpected of an undergraduate access institution.

“Her capstone class is always in high demand and sometimes filled over established capacity,” said Dr. Victoria Johnson, charter dean for the School of Business. “Students regularly plead to be allowed into her classes. Her teaching style is rigorous and demanding, but the students admire and respect her, and strive to meet her expectations.”

Zhang sets high standards for herself, as well, producing a book and more than 30 research papers. She also has made numerous state and national presentations.

Dr. Speros Peppas, professor of marketing and international business, observed that Zhang infuses her courses with her research findings, and encourages her students to do their own research projects.

“Not only has Dr. Zhang made this teaching method work, but she has done it in such a way that her students love her for it and thirst for more,” he said. “She is truly remarkable in this respect.”

Zhang is particularly aware of the importance of introducing research to first-generation students. About half of Georgia Gwinnett’s graduates are the first in their families to earn a bachelor’s degree.

“First-generation students often have not had anyone open up the world to them,” she said. “They often have not traveled far or read widely, and so by sharing my research with them and challenging them to do their own, they learn they are not just a part of Georgia Gwinnett College – they are part of a much larger set of human beings scattered throughout this nation and abroad.”

Zhang’s influence is felt beyond her instruction. She worked to establish the GGC chapter of the Sigma Beta Delta International Honor Society for Business, Management and Administration. She helped develop the GGC Honors Program. She also provides letters of recommendation for students applying for internships, jobs and graduate schools and maintains connections to former students. Several GGC alumni have expressed appreciation for her continued mentorship, even years after graduation.

“When Dr. Zhang was my professor, I looked forward to going to class each day; I am honored to not only call her my professor, but my friend,” said Tyler Walsh, ’11, in his letter of nomination for Zhang’s teaching award.

In his nomination letter, Sunair Sayani, ’13, said Zhang truly cares about her students’ success. He credited her for his 4.0 graduate school average, saying, “… because I took courses from Dr. Zhang, who had such high academic
standards, I have not had any trouble doing well here at Georgia State University.” Sayani earned two master’s degrees from Georgia State in 2015, one in finance and the other in managerial sciences.

In addition to the Regents Teaching Excellence Award, Zhang received GGC’s 2015 Outstanding Teaching Award. While she is honored to receive both awards, she maintains her student-focused perspective.

“Awards can sometimes be fleeting, but impacting a person is more permanent as they continue to impact others themselves,” she said.

Zhang finds her greatest reward in the many thank-you messages from her students, who remind her of how her first students in the village of Qiankan expressed the same sentiments.

“When my students thank me, I know that following my dream was the right thing to do.”