Alumna’s cultural enrichment program helps American and international students understand each other’s cultures.

Growing up in Hebei, China, Fan Yang (’13 MSW), was surrounded by family, had no trouble making friends and embraced her Chinese heritage.

“I spent the first 18 years of my life there,” she said.

As an international student at The University of Alabama, Yang said she struggled to adjust to her new surroundings and barely knew American culture when she arrived at UA in 2011. She found most international students had the same problems. During her MSW field placement at Tuscaloosa’s One Place, a resource center that serves families and children, Yang said she realized that many American students also had limited access to other cultures.

“I was working in the center’s after-school program and met a lot of children who were asking me ‘Is China a state in the U.S.?’ It made me realize that there is a big gap between American students and international students,” said Yang, who is now pursuing a PhD in social work at UA. “Both populations needed to know the other’s cultures very much, but they didn’t have access to them.”

In 2012, Yang turned her experience into UA’s award-winning cultural enrichment program Heart Touch, which collaborates with Tuscaloosa’s One Place to help young Americans and international students understand and share each other’s cultures. Yang, like so many other UA social work students and faculty, takes an entrepreneurial approach toward sparking change in Tuscaloosa and other communities.

That’s the spirit of the University in general and the School of Social Work in particular, Dean Vikki Vandiver said.

“Our school has a long, rich history in fostering collaborative relationships in our communities and social service agencies to improve quality of life,” Vandiver said. “I’m proud to see our students and faculty building on this culture of engagement to break social barriers.”

Taking Chinese Culture to Schools

Yang, who earned a master of social work from UA in 2013, came up with the idea for Heart Touch while working as a graduate assistant in the Division of Community Affairs at UA. Samory Pruitt, vice president for the Division of Community Affairs, helped Yang land the position and launch Heart Touch in UA’s Crossroads Community Center. Through the center, Heart Touch offers culture lessons, hands-on activities, field trips and other programs to provide multicultural learning experiences to elementary-aged children whose schools likely don’t have the resources to provide such enrichment opportunities.

The vision for the Heart Touch program and its success can be directly attributed to Yang’s keen intellect, her compassion for others, and her genuine desire to make the world a better place for us all, Pruitt said.

“What’s even more impressive about Fan is that rather than succumb to the problems presented by a new language and culture she chose to turn them into blessings for others,” he said. “Every nation needs more of that kind of spirit and intelligence.”

Since Heart Touch launched, Yang said the program has served more than 360 students in city and county schools, including nine elementary schools in Tuscaloosa County. The program relies on international student volunteers from different majors, American students mainly from UA’s College of Education and volunteers from the local community to teach students in the classroom. Peng Shi, a tai chi instructor in Tuscaloosa, is among volunteers who have helped to make the program a success. In 2015, she volunteered to demonstrate the art to 30 fourth- and fifth grade students at Holt Elementary School in Tuscaloosa County.

Heart Touch continues to grow and was recently unveiled to 103 students at Paramount Junior High in rural Greene County. Students covered six topics from Heart Touch instructors — martial arts, food, music, calligraphy, clothing and school life, and they had a chance to try Chinese dumplings.

“The venture opens the door for Heart Touch to bring its work to rural students and other locations outside the immediate University area,” Yang said.

Back in China, Yang said she is working on her dissertation and honored by the support she continues to receive to expand the program’s reach. Her work in community engagement earned her the UA Center for Community Based Partnership’s 2016 Outstanding Student-Initiated Engagement Effort Award. She also received UA’s 2017 Horizon Award, a university Legacy award given as part of the annual Realizing the Dream celebration held at UA.

The Legacy honor, she said, helped reinforce her commitment to unity, social justice and to following the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to instill a “more culturally sensitive and inclusive mindset in our children.”

Yang also researches bullying experienced by immigrant children and the health conditions of low-income children and youth with Associate Professor of Social Work Laura Hopson. She is expected to graduate with her PhD in December 2017. She plans to continue to devote her time to Heart Touch, community-based work and social justice causes.

“Social workers work against humans’ internal weaknesses to promote social justice,” she said. “I am very inspired by the mission of social work as a profession.”