Dr. Renhong Zhao: Finding Meaning and Purpose at UC Clermont


“One thing I cannot give to students is motivation,” said Dr. Renhong Zhao, a math specialist in UC Clermont’s Learning Center.  Zhao, who grew up in a small city in China called Zhenjiang, has been working at UC Clermont for over a decade.  He holds a Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Zhejiang (rated fourth-best undergraduate engineering school by U.S. News and World Report) and a PhD from the University of Cincinnati. However, his employment at UC Clermont is only a small portion of his work experience.

In 1985, Zhao earned a scholarship to the University of Cincinnati. He enrolled at UC’s main campus, where he earned a PhD in chemical engineering. He graduated from UC in 1992. After he earned his degree, he got a job working at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, located in downtown Cincinnati, where he worked for roughly five years. From the EPA, Zhao and his teammates earned a computer development award. After he left the EPA, he went to Silicon Valley, California, where he worked for over a year in voice recognition. Directly succeeding his employment in Silicon Valley, Zhao found work at a consulting company, where he worked for nearly ten months before coming to UC Clermont.

Although Zhao has worked in top labs and holds a PhD in chemical engineering, these achievements did not come easily. Zhao’s fundamental education wasn’t found in a traditional school. His eighth through twelfth-grade education was entirely self-taught, and when he was old enough for college, higher education seemed unattainable.

The Cultural Revolution of China began in 1966 under the rule of communist leader Mao Zedong. Mao launched the Cultural Revolution as an attempt to reassert authority over the Chinese government, undermining the Soviet Union’s power. Due to the Cultural Revolution, connections, power, and status were emphasized, and as a result colleges were filled solely with those of high social rank. The National College Entry Exam, the gaokao, was abandoned at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, and many schools were closed. Because of this, ordinary students had no chance at attending a prestigious university; students who had the opportunity to attend college were wealthy, powerful, or both. However, in 1977 the gaokao was reinstated to level the playing field. Once the gaokao was recovered, all students once more had the opportunity to give the grueling college admissions test their best shot, regardless of the depth of their pockets or the realm of their influence. If students were able to pass the gaokao, they would be admitted to universities based on their test scores. Because only 230,000 students passed the gaokao out of the 5.7 million attempts in 1977, Zhao knew this would be no easy task.

As a young man, Zhao was sent to the countryside to become a farmer. But unlike the others, Zhao valued education above all, a principle instilled in him by his mother. Because of this, Zhao read textbooks each night, constantly learning and studying for the gaokao exam, despite the criticism and even mockery he received. According to Zhao, when his companions learned of his goals, they laughed, called him “silly” and told him that he’d be a farmer forever, but Zhao never stopped sacrificing for his education. Working on a farm by day and studying by night, Zhao was able to educate himself.

Zhao’s sacrifices for his education were many. Because there was no electricity during the time Zhao studied in the countryside, he was unable to read his textbooks in the dark of the night. However, this didn’t stop him; he bought a lantern to continue his evening studies, a purchase that cost him ten days’ worth of work. Zhao says that not only was the lantern meaningful for college, it lighted his learning. For eight years, Zhao studied for the gaokao with fierce determination.

When it finally came time for Zhao to take the National College Entry Exam, his diligence paid off. Zhao passed the gaokao with flying colors. He scored within the top one percentile, despite the fact that he had tested against millions of formally educated students for a spot at a university. He was going to attend the University of Zhejiang, one of the best engineering schools in the world. “That changed my life,” he says, “going to the university.”

Much of his success can be attributed to the wisdom and foresight of his mother. Although she was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer while Zhao lived in the countryside, she never stopped believing in the potential of her son. According to Zhao, his mother didn’t care about money or wealth. Her biggest desire was for her son to receive a higher education, and she knew he would be able to earn his way to a degree.

Because of Zhao’s life experiences, he realizes the true value of a college education, and has a message for the students of today. He wants college students to know two things: First, students shouldn’t take classroom time for granted. Many students think they are capable of learning on their own and don’t need to attend lectures, but Zhao knows this isn’t the case. “If you have the opportunity,” Zhao says, “learn something from your teachers.” Although Zhao was able to learn enough on his own to enter college, it couldn’t replace the four years of classroom learning he had missed.

Secondly, Zhao wants students to realize that time spent in college should be a very beautiful and fruitful time. Although it may not feel that way while you are stressed over tests and assignments, you should understand that college is the only time during your life that you will be able to focus solely on learning, surrounded by professors, faculty, and fellow students eager to see you succeed. College is also a time of new beginnings. Dr. Zhao recognizes this, as well as the potential of each individual student. “I also see some hope here,” he says. “Not for me—for the young generation.” College is a time to learn discipline, a time to create meaningful relationships, and a time to thrive. “When I come to any school,” says Dr. Renhong Zhao, “I feel comfortable. I feel peaceful.”


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