For this international student, coming to America was more than just a dream. It was a mission.
In the valley of the Ningxia Plane of Northern China lies Yinchuan, the hometown of Jia Liang.
Liang lived in Yinchuan until she moved to Beijing for her undergraduate studies. It was there she began a journey that would eventually lead her to Baylor University, the world’s largest Baptist institution of higher education.
Liang grew up in Yinchuan with both of her parents and an extended family close by. Liang’s parents were both professors at a local college and as a result, knowledge and learning have always been a big part of her life.
After completing her primary schooling, Liang chose to attend Beijing Normal University in the heart of the city, expressing she wanted a change of pace from the rural setting she was accustomed to. She studied language and literature and graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in Chinese language. Liang said that going off to school in Beijing was the farthest she had been from home and that the transition was hard.
“The move helped me want to go abroad and study because I knew then I wanted to go and learn more about other cultures,” she said.
Liang first had to pick a field in which to study abroad, one she felt would be interesting and challenging.
An advisor from Beijing Normal University told her about social work. She found it interesting, seeing as though social work is not a common field of study in China.
After searching for schools that offered a master’s program in social work, she came across Baylor.
After researching the school’s credentials in the field of social work, as well as the location of the school, Liang finally decided to make the 7,000-mile trip to Waco.
“It seemed the professors here were very nice,” said Liang, adding that the small classes were an advantage since it allows students to have closer relationships with the professors.
“This was very important to me, especially considering the fact that I am an international student.”
Roughly one month before Liang was set to leave China, tragedy struck.
Her father, who was her biggest supporter, died after an extended illness.
Although Liang put off responding to Baylor’s offer during the duration of her father’s sickness, his passing became the motivation she needed to go ahead with her plans to study abroad.
She said her father always encouraged her to experience other languages and cultures.
“My father always wanted me to go out and learn, so I think leaving China is what he would have wanted for me. I want to continue his dream.”
The decision to leave her family after her father’s death was tough and took a considerable toll on her family. Liang says her mother took it the hardest, and that leaving made Liang feel guilty.
She added that sometimes, however, you have to choose between your dreams and your family and in the wake of her father’s death, Liang felt that following her dreams was the best way to honor him.
When Liang arrived in Texas for the first time, she had no apartment or bank account.
She did not know anyone personally, neither was she familiar with how to get around throughout the city.
She was, however, offered a hotel room to stay in for the first few nights after she arrived in Waco.
It was here that she met Kaley Eggers, a fellow graduate student in the Master of Social Work program.
Eggers offered to check in on her, help finalize her living arrangements and introducing her to some fellow social work students.
“I was immediately taken aback by how brave Jia is,” Eggers said.
“She applied to a school in foreign country and had faith that things would work out despite having faced huge obstacles, and I really admire her for that.”
According to the Center for International Education, 587 international students are on the Baylor campus.
International students often deal with many struggles before they can start classes in America.
Besides the often complex legalities of the transition, they must also acclimate themselves with a new environment at the American university setting, all while securing a place to live.
One student, according to Alexine Burke, International Student Programs director for the Center of International Education, ended up having to pay rent on his apartment in Waco for a whole semester before he could even get his Visa approved to come to America.
In Liang’s first semester in the social work program, she was assigned an internship with Communities in Schools, an organization that works to help students get involved in their local communities.
Liang said that after losing her father, going to school full time in a foreign country and working in the Waco Independent School District was overwhelming for her.
She was not performing well in her classes and in order to keep herself in the program, she had to drop the internship.
Currently she is a part-time graduate student and is doing much better in school.
She plans to go back into the internship program in the fall semester.
“Baylor international students like Jia Liang are one of the best-kept secrets on campus,” Burke said. She added that many of them have experienced wars, famine, poverty, civil unrest, political strife and other life experiences that the average Baylor student “cannot imagine and will never see in their lifetime.”
For Liang, the hardest, yet most rewarding part of coming to Baylor is getting an opportunity to meet the people.
She says the daily life activity is similar to Yinchuan, which helped make her feel more comfortable and at home.
“The people here are so close,” she said, adding that she pictured virtually all parts of America to be similar to that of New York or Los Angeles.
Liang says her time in America has been hard without her family, but her friends help and she has daily Skype calls with her mom.
After she finishes the graduate program, Liang has some ideas as to where social work and her Chinese language degree will take her.
She has noticed during her time at Baylor that the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is not well represented and as a result, she is passionate about finding work within the community.
“It is kind of special here at Baylor because religion and faith make people less comfortable talking about it,” Liang said, stating that for her, it’s a great field for social work since there continues to be many prejudices in the area.
“I wants to help people fight prejudices and find jobs to be a support system for those who need it.”
Liang has been through a lot to get to where she is today.
Despite having to deal with the death of her father coupled with the strain of leaving her family, she still made the decision to travel to a new country where she was completely unfamiliar with the language and its citizens.
Despite this extreme obstacle, she persevered and pressed on toward the mark of her higher calling.
Most importantly, Liang survived.
Liang’s friend Kaley Eggers puts it this way: “Since the beginning, Jia has worked really hard to do whatever it takes to follow her calling and in the process, has taught many that sometimes, the things that are the most challenging are worth pursuing.”
“It takes a unique person to go through all that Jia Liang has and still come out on top.”
“Liang is the epitome of a survivor,” Eggers said.
Written by Alexandera Layton
Photography by Meagan Downing