“So much love and support”: International student completes master’s degree despite pandemic setbacks

John Chen will graduate with his master’s degree from the School of Education and thanks all the faculty and students at UAB for helping him succeed.

Stream John Chen 6Photography: Steve WoodWhen John Chen graduated with his undergraduate degree from a college in China, he knew accounting was not his passion. After a few years in the workplace, he decided he wanted to travel to the United States and pursue a master’s degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages. 

In December 2019, Chen traveled from coast to coast of the United States, visiting host families and touring college campuses that he would apply to for the next academic year. However, it was not until he returned home to Xuzhou, China, that he learned those plans might not be possible.

“The pandemic hit my hometown quickly after I arrived, and everyone’s life was paused,” Chen said. “I was trained for risk management and crisis management in my undergrad, but the courses I took prepared me for nothing like this.”

Stuck at home and not able to visit more colleges, Chen used an app that provides information on American universities, and it was through it that he learned about the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Education.

“I reached out to the director of the English as a Second Language Teacher Education program, Dr. Susan Spezzini, to learn more about the program, and it was during that conversation that I decided UAB is where I wanted to go,” he said. “She sounded so understanding and supportive over the phone, and I knew this is where I needed to be. When one is coming from a different country, it is important to have support in order to be successful, and I knew I would get that from her and the program.” 

After applying and getting accepted to the program, Chen was ready to start his journey as a Blazer; but due to visa restrictions and the pandemic, he could not make the trip to Birmingham to start classes. However, a number of UAB’s classes were moved to an online format during the pandemic, so in August 2020, Chen was able to start his program from across the globe.

“It was difficult at first because, when it is daytime in Alabama, it was nighttime in my country; but all my professors were amazing and helped me in my classes,” he said. “I came into the program expecting to barely pass with C’s, but I will be graduating with a 4.0 because of all the support I have received.”

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In May 2021, Chen was able to obtain his student visa; but after learning about his grandmother’s and grandfather’s cancer diagnoses, he decided to stay in China for another semester.

Finally, in the spring 2022 semester, he was able to make the 36-hour plan ride from Xuzhou to Birmingham to complete his in-person teaching courses and cross the finish line of his program.

“Everyone I have met here is so nice and encouraging,” Chen said. “I read a research paper that says, ‘Students learn better in supportive environments,’ and I believe this is why I did so well at UAB.”

Chen will be graduating with a Master of Arts degree in education in ESL in August. He hopes to become a research assistant so he can further his professional training before continuing his education through a Ph.D. program. His research interests include finding ways to help other Chinese students in America reduce difficulty caused by cultural difference and as a higher education student.

He plans to walk at a future commencement ceremony when his parents can travel to Birmingham to celebrate his accomplishments.

“I am so grateful for everyone who has supported me during my master’s program,” he said. “I love Alabama — it has become my ‘home away from home.’”