Pioneer Sparks a Romance

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Yi (Ella) and Yijian (Davie) might not be the first Pioneer Scholar couple ever to date, but they’re one we were happy to learn about. Here’s their story, from Stanford to UPenn.

Ella’s Story

Pioneer Scholar Ella, from Hangzhou, is a member of the Yao ethnic minority, one of China’s 55 ethnic minority groups. This cultural identity was important in her choice of anthropology as her research area when she applied for her Pioneer Research Program. As a high school student, she had become interested in learning more about Yao culture, which she had begun to learn about from her grandfather. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to dig into the beauty of my own culture,” she said, “and to try to reveal its beauty to the whole world.”

Ella was intrigued to learn there were many branches of anthropology, so “when I realized that I was in the class of nonverbal communication, which is related to linguistic anthropology, I was really excited.” Because Ella admits to being “a little bit reserved,” her choice of research topic is surprising. Rather than doing research only through literature review of online resources, Ella’s professor required the students to base their papers on real-world observations that they had designed and conducted themselves. Since she was currently studying in Hangzhou, and not in her grandparents’ hometown, it would be difficult to conduct research on the Yao minority. Instead, she chose a challenging topic: “behaviors young males perform on the street when they see attractive young, beautiful girls.”

Ella acknowledges that “this is kind of stunning as a research paper topic,” especially for a reserved Chinese young woman. She found it quite a challenge at first to sit on the street and secretly observe the young men who passed by, but “when it came to the end of the process, I almost thought I was enjoying it.” Part way through the observation, Ella realized that because she was going to America for a summer program, and she would not get enough samples in China before she needed to leave. So she changed her focus slightly. Her final paper involved a comparison between the behaviors of Chinese and American young males.

“After participating in Pioneer, I understand that I am able to produce something original.”

Ella learned far more from her research than the behaviors of young males, Chinese or American. She learned that her perception that “pretty much everything in the field has been written by somebody else” was not correct. She did her own research, analyzed her statistics, and wrote an original paper based on original ideas. 

Ella also found that her Pioneer experience helped her focus the research she had been doing about Yao culture. Before participating in Pioneer, she said, “I was a little confused” about how to approach questions in depth. “Because of the Pioneer process, I have a clearer understanding of what research is and how to approach certain questions.”

Davie’s story

Pioneer Scholar Davie, from Shenzhen, China, loves books, “all of them,” and so when he applied for his Pioneer Research Program, he chose the research area that will be his college major, English Literature. Unlike many Chinese students who find writing a research paper in English to be extremely challenging, Davie says he was really looking forward to it. “I write more confidently in English,” he says, noting that his father is “very interested in classical Chinese and very good at it.” Davie’s mistakes in English weren’t so noticeable, so he could write more freely.

But the experience had its own challenges, most of them unexpected. Davie’s research concentration, “Heroes in English Literature,” involved reading several epic poems and choosing one as a research topic. Davie chose the Old English epic Beowulf, and immediately encountered some obstacles. “When I began to do research on this book, I found that it had been studied from every perspective possible,” with most scholars approaching it from a psychoanalytic point of view. But Davie’s professor assured him that integrating a literature review to his own synthesis would make a good paper, so that became his approach. He read “some very difficult psychoanalysis books that I had never expected to read” so that he could understand the points being made. And he did find his own way to make a contribution to the literature, focusing on Grendel’s mother as the Outsider from a psychoanalytic point of view.

“If you like it, when you do more research on it, you will like it even more.”

Davie found the process of research to be quite different from what he had envisioned. He wound up reading difficult texts on literature and psychoanalysis and post colonialism. At first, he was persuaded by every argument, instantly agreeing with every article he read. However, “after the research process, I knew how to look at research papers more critically.” He also found he was reading literature more critically. “I began to do research on every book I read, and it really widened my understanding of the books.”

When it came to writing his paper, Davie thinks he may actually have had some advantages over native speakers. “I pay much more attention to my language,” he said. He realized that writing short sentences was a good style for a research paper, and was careful to check his grammar and the meaning of the words he used.

Davie’s dream is to be a college professor, or a freelance writer or editor.

Pioneer Romance
Ella and Davie
Their story

Ella and Davie met the same year they did their Pioneer Research Programs, at the Stanford Summer Humanities Institute. Pioneer was a connection, and provided experiences to share and compare. Davie had finished his program. Ella was just finishing her paper, and Davie read some final drafts, and helped a little with grammar. His reaction to her unusual topic was a typical “Wow”!

They compared notes on professors—hers was the stereotypical gray-haired male, his was younger and often told jokes. Both were very helpful. And both Ella and Davie enjoyed their time with their international cohorts, perhaps setting the stage for expecting another Pioneer Scholar to be a compatible companion.

Davie found Ella’s interest in anthropology to be eye-opening. He had never thought about the field, but “after I read some anthropology papers, I found it was actually one of the most interesting subjects in the world.” Ella was not quite as intrigued by the ancient epics that Davie had studied, although she understood that he appreciated the opportunity to read something significant “that you wouldn’t just pick up when you have free time.” Although they talked about books, among other things, Davie’s conclusion is that “I don’t think we like the same kind of literature.”

However, one “like” they have in common is each other, and at the end of the summer program, they decided to take a risky step. They both applied to the University of Pennsylvania, and no other school, for early decision. And, remarkably, they were both accepted! The day they got the news, they could hardly believe it. Davie had expected Ella to get in, but he wasn’t nearly as sure about himself. And Ella knew that UPenn only accepted a limited number of Chinese students in any given year, so didn’t have high hopes.

Now, as they have begun their UPenn studies remotely, they are both looking forward to the day when they will once again study together on the same campus.

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