A few weeks after graduation, Peng Wu walked into Professor Christine Min Wotipka’s office with an envelope. In that envelope was cash, enough to house and feed a graduate student for at least a month. Wu, who had saved the emergency fund his family gave him when he left China for Stanford the fall before (and added to it by being frugal and taking a part-time job), handed it to Wotipka.
The funds, he said, would hopefully help another graduate student working on issues of social inequality and gender studies, his areas of interest. Wu explained that the Stanford Graduate School of Education had been very welcoming and had given him great opportunity to learn. He wanted to pay it forward.
Wotipka introduced Wu to the dean, who asked if there might be someone in his family or hometown more needing of the funds. Wu persisted. He would soon have a job, he explained, and would be in a position to help people in China, too.
Wu’s story begins in a small, rural town in Southern China. He was one of many migrant children denied access to public school education because of policies at the time. His paternal grandmother was married at the age of 14, with no opportunities for formal schooling. And Wu’s own parents were unable to complete their schooling after the Cultural Revolution.
”Motivated by his own experiences, Peng realized the sacrifices of women in his family very early on,” said Wotipka, the director of the International Comparative Education program that Wu graduated from in August 2015.
Coming to the United States to study had been a long-held dream for Wu. Self-described as “academically so-so" during his younger years, it wasn’t until Wu was in high school that an English language class sparked a special academic interest and he “fell in love with English.”
With the encouragement of his English teacher, Wu began to excel in school and he dreamed about studying in an English-speaking country.
He went on to study economics at the Shanghai Institute for Foreign Trade (now the Shanghai University of International Business and Economics). After a few years of working as a research analyst for a consulting company, Wu—still determined to someday study in the United States—decided to work for a tutoring company. It paid more, offered more free time and would enable him to save money to study abroad.
“I wasn’t originally thinking about education,” Wu said.
But Wu ended up starting his own educational tutoring company 2011. As his business in Shanghai grew amongst the more affluent families, however, Wu wanted to do more for the population that he had come from—the migrant children whose only options for schooling were underfunded and under-resourced.
Wu eventually connected with local organizations focused on improving education and health for rural migrant children, and began searching for an academic program that would help him “really understand social dynamics and inequality--particularly as an underdog myself.”
Coming to Stanford
Wu chose the ICE program at Stanford GSE. During it, he would work closely with a faculty advisor on a guided master's thesis.
“When students first get here,” said his advisor, Professor David Labaree, “I like to get their backstory then get to business later on. Why did they come here? What do they hope to do?”
As Wu shared stories of his family’s experiences with social inequality, Labaree encouraged him to research those issues.
Wu’s yearlong project explored how gender stereotypes in China have conditioned the self-belief formation of Chinese women and possibly impacted their education and life trajectories.
His work, Labaree explained, “captured the ambivalence of women who had pushed through many a glass ceiling, yet experienced an inner conflict of pushing against the potent cultural influence on issues of gender equality.”
Wu's thesis became a labor of love: he dedicated it to his grandmother and the women in his family who experienced gender inequality.
“Nobody should ever underestimate Peng,” said Labaree. “He’s good at figuring out how to overcome obstacles.”
Reflections on education
Reflecting on his year in the ICE program, Wu credited the cohort-based learning experience with enriching his time at Stanford. The education school, he said, “embraces all the differences, appreciates each strength and gives space to grow.”
Wu bonded with fellow students as they had a shared mutual respect for each other’s cultures. “Peng was committed to his studies. He decided to forgo a lot of social events and was extremely studious. Yet, he was still one of the most liked students," Wotipka said.
Wu is the recipient of a Stanford alumnus' gift to the GSE. Chien Lee (BS/MS '75, MBA '79) of the Bei Shan Tang Foundation provides fellowships to support international students from China to study in the ICE program.
“You could see he was somebody who made an impact in his cohort,” Labaree said. “What makes him remarkable is that he abandoned his thriving educational preparatory business in Shanghai to come here.”
Wu returned to China after graduation and continues working with organizations and rural migrant schools.
“Peng is a true intellectual," said Wotipka. "He always wants to connect his personal experiences with a theoretical lens."