Zijia Zhuang ’21 will soon be traveling to Russia, Japan, Taiwan, Ghana, and Germany as a Watson Fellow.
The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship is a one-year grant for purposeful, independent exploration outside the U.S., awarded to graduating seniors nominated by one of 41 partner institutions.
Zijia is a comparative literature major at Bryn Mawr and her project is titled “Who is Reading to Children.”
Throughout her travels, which will likely begin sometime after Aug. 1 as long as international travel can be done safely, Zijia plans to work with organizations that read to children or provide support for families to facilitate parent-child reading.
A native of Bejing China, Zijia became interested in children’s literacy while volunteering for a mobile library project that brought picture books to local communities.
“At that time, I had just found out that I was among the first generation of Chinese children raised with picture books and was shocked that most of my friends have never know the existence of picture books as a genre, let alone reading one when they were kids,” says Zijia.
Zijia remained active in volunteering and promoting children’s literacy as a teen but it was during an internship in the summer of 2018 with Dream Corps International that her interest in the topic intensified.
Zijia was placed in a kindergarten in a small village in the Gansu province with three team members. They brought more than 1,000 picture books and a library system installed on a tablet.
“Before our arrival, the teachers, kids, and parents had never seen a picture book in their life,” she recalls.
During their one-month residence, the group developed a sustainable school library, taught the teachers how to use the software to borrow books, and carried out various reading activities each week.
However, it was during family visits that Zijia realized the depth of the challenge faced in the village.
“Most of the children were brought up by their grandparents as their parents needed to earn a living as workers in cities far away, and those grandparents were not well-educated themselves. If the parents were living at home, they were farmers who needed to spend most of their time tending the land, and after a long and exhausting day, they simply could not spare any more time and energy to read for their kids”
Zijia came to realize that promoting children’s literacy requires various different yet connected institutions and organizations to work together: departments of education, NGOs, children’s bookstores, libraries, local kindergartens and primary schools, publishing houses, and children’s literature departments in universities.
During her Watson Fellowship, Zijia plans to visit as many of those institutions as possible in the countries she’s chosen and to participate in various activities in order to get an overview of how they work together.
“And of course, in each place I go, I’d like to visit local families that both are able to read to their children (and probably have the habit of doing so) and those who do not read to their kids,” she adds. “I will dig into the reasons behind their choices on family reading and finding out what are the crucial resources that families need to facilitate parent-child reading that can be provided by organizations, and what are the most helpful alternatives in developing children’s reading habits for those families who find it impossible to read for their children.”