Earlier this year, Ruixue Peng graduated with her master’s degree from the Anthropology & Education program at Teachers College. Now she’s working with the United Nations here in New York City, but she took some time to catch up with us. Read on for more about her work at the UN and her research at TC!
Where are you working now?
Right now I’m a consultant for this very specific office in UNICEF, called South-South Cooperation. The general idea is cooperation, without any politics, and assistance between all the developing countries in the world. So it’s like a supplement to the typical North-South coordination in the world. It’s mutual help.
I can give you an example of what we do. Colombia wanted help with their early childhood education, and we happened to know that Cuba had very good practices in that area. We matched them up, introduced the people to each other. We build connections like this, for studies, visits, conferences, and generally sharing knowledge.
What is your personal role?
UNICEF is going to implement a new agenda, called the Young People’s Agenda. It’s focused on helping young people and adolescents in the range of 15 to 24 years, helping them with education and employment problems. My work is to strengthen the Young People’s Agenda in South-South Cooperation. So I’m doing some research trying to look for potential partnerships and funding resources, and also organizing knowledge exchange about the best practices.
What parts of your work are related to anthropology?
It’s a lot! We have lots of data sharing and knowledge exchange. For example the first assignment I did was called ‘country consultation.’ Basically we did interviews with our country offices, and we got these people talking about how their work is related to South-South Cooperation. I asked questions, took the notes, and by the end I came up with a report. It said what their good practices were, and how they could be replicated in other countries.
What was the most valuable part of your experience at TC?
I really appreciated the curiosity from all the people I met in the Anthropology & Education program. it doesn’t matter if it’s a professor or a student, everyone has this curiosity about life in general. Everyone wants to know more about the things beyond their field. Everyone I met would keep talking about every perspective on life. I think that’s really valuable.
Who was your favorite professor? What were your favorite classes?
Every class was really difficult, but also fun! My favorite professor is Carol Benson because she’s the type of person who really lights up the whole room. She really gives you lots of assistance. My favorite class was the first one I took with her, Literacy & International Development. It was my first class in the United States, so it was very difficult at the beginning. But she was very patient and she helped me go through all the terms and how the classroom is organized here, which I think was very helpful for an international student.
Why did you decide to do the Anthropology & Education program?
I think it’s associated with my initial ideas, after I visited a village in southwest China, where they speak an indigenous language. I noticed kids who are suffering from not having access to a good education there. When sociologists are doing analysis or research, they’re just analyzing the numbers. They’re not necessarily analyzing what went wrong with the system. I want to spend more time talking to the kids, getting to know their lives. Then, that’s what I actually did for my thesis.
Can you tell us more about your master’s thesis?
My thesis was about mother tongue education in this area of southwest China called Liangshan, home to the Yi people, one of China’s ethnic minority groups. They have about a million people who speak their own indigenous language, even though Mandarin is a dominant language there. The government was really pushing them to study Mandarin first, but the dropout rate was pretty high. So they asked what went wrong and figured out that it might be language. Kids don’t understand Mandarin, the first class they have in school.
So, ten years ago, the government implemented an indigenous language program. You can see the numbers, the enrollment rate is increasing. But parents’ motivation is not to help kids keep their mother tongue. The parents want them to go to the college. On the college entrance exam, you get additional points if you’re coming from the mother tongue language program.
When I talked to local teachers and observed classrooms, I could see people really struggling. You can see some growth in the numbers over the last ten years, but teachers said they spent lots of time even for this slight improvement. After work, they have to persuade the parents to take this program. That’s why they offer the extra points for the college entrance exam, otherwise parents would all put their kids in the Mandarin programs.
Do you have any advice for students who share your interests?
It’s actually very useful to have a social science background. I’m in this division called Data Research and Policy, with lots of data people there. Every time that I mention I’m an anthropology person, they’re very surprised. They say, “We need a person like you in our division. We always analyze the data, but we need someone to tell us the narratives behind the data. Where did this data come from? How can we explain the data better?”
What research or projects are you interested in exploring for the future?
One thing I’m really interested in right now is just for my personal curiosity. I noticed lots of people my age are making progress in life, but facing anxiety in their career and relationships. They’re living by themselves, figuring out how to find a partner or a job they are passionate about. They’re often stressed and confused. Technology is really reshaping our lifestyles. The way young people right now is really different from the past. Lots of people feel they are not achieving their full potential or are falling behind. I want to see how our generation is coping with this dilemma. How will we leverage the development of technology as a force of change?
Are you a prospective student interested in doing work and research similar to Ruixue’s? Consider applying to the TC’s Anthropology & Education program!
Parts of this interview have been edited for clarity and brevity.