Wei Zhao, University of Macau

Opening the Door to Opportunity

Faculty Scholarship Program.Wei ZhaoAs a young man, Zhao Wei was determined to go abroad for his graduate studies. But in 1980s China, the opportunities were few, and the financial and administrative barriers were high. “At the time,” Dr. Zhao recalled in an interview, “there was no awareness of GRE and TOEFL in China and no means to take those tests. So how could a Chinese student even apply to an American graduate program?” Dr. Zhao considers himself fortunate that Barbara Burn, then director of international programs at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, persuaded her university’s graduate program to accept him, and that the United Board provided scholarship support. “Without Barbara Burn and the United Board, the door would not be opened,” he said. “This opportunity made all the difference in my life.”

After earning his PhD in computer science, Dr. Zhao embarked on an academic career at several distinguished institutions, including the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Texas A&M University, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In 2008, however, he decided to accept a new challenge: to become rector of the University of Macau and, as he says, “make a difference” in the lives of its 8,600 students. He and his colleagues launched ambitious plans to build a new campus – which opened in August 2014 – and to reform undergraduate education.

“We want a more holistic approach to education,” Dr. Zhao explains, and so the university’s 4-in-1 approach combines coursework for a student’s major, general education courses, research and internships, and peer education. The University of Macau is the first university in the world to require all four of these components for graduation, he says, underscoring the importance it attaches to learning both inside and outside the classroom. “Higher education is a process for students to discover themselves and to learn to fit into society,” Dr. Zhao believes, and through the 4-in-1 approach, he wants to help young adults open doors to their future.

Dr. Zhao’s University of Macau students may find it hard to imagine the obstacles he faced as a student and instructor at Shaanxi Normal University in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “But my story tells them that no matter who you are, if you work hard, opportunity will come,” he said.

(First published in Horizons in December 2014)