At the age of 18, Zheng Yajun had a unified understanding of her hometown Zhangye in Gansu Province: she lost her father at a young age, was self-reliant and resilient, and ranked 40th in the province in the college entrance examination, gaining admission to Fudan University, a prestigious institution with a history of a hundred years.
After turning 18 and entering the Department of Sociology at Fudan University, Zheng Yajun felt like an outsider. She spent four years feeling lost, out of place, and giving her all, believing that her classmates were confident and impressive, while the campus rules (such as online course selection and college system) were obscure and difficult to understand. She not only felt that she had no strengths but also didn’t know what she should do. She only had memories of taking the highly praised “Introduction to Sociology” elective course in her freshman year, but she couldn’t understand the professor’s elaborate references. “This made me even more convinced of my own inadequacy,” she said.
She spent three years trying to catch up with her idealized “classmates” and finally obtained an exchange opportunity at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in her senior year, one year later than most of her classmates. However, she faced another setback. “I couldn’t understand Cantonese or English, and the gap with other classmates became even wider. Fudan’s classmates had already started looking for jobs and further education, while I was still lost in Hong Kong. That semester was extremely stressful, I couldn’t sleep, and I lost a lot of hair. I kept wondering what I should do and feeling unprepared.”
Because we are of similar age and alumni, Zheng Yajun and I have experienced the same university environment: the adaptation period in the first year, focusing on academic performance and extracurricular activities in the second year, going on exchange programs and internships in the third year, and facing job hunting, graduate school applications, and overseas applications in the fourth year. Not every student can keep up with this fast-paced rhythm, and Zheng Yajun fell behind.
However, Zheng Yajun was fortunate. In the midst of her self-doubt, Fudan University showed its supportive function and provided her with a buffer zone. The professors advised her to continue her studies and recommended her to become a research assistant at the Fudan Higher Education Institute. She deferred graduation for a year, stopped aimless wandering, focused on her studies, and eventually gained admission to the institute for graduate studies through the recommendation-based admission process.
Determined to solve her own confusion through research, Zheng Yajun investigated how social background influences individuals during their college years. Through her studies, she confirmed that the twists and turns and confusion experienced by students from humble origins in college are not isolated cases but rather structural phenomena, caused by the gap between the limited perspectives of the lower class and the default culture in universities.
By conducting a case study of 62 graduates from two top research universities in China, one in the north and one in the south, Zheng Yajun answered two questions: how the choices for post-graduation paths are formed and how family background or social origin leads to divergence in career paths. This research was published in the spring of 2023 under the title “Beyond the Golden List: The Mystery of Divergence in College Graduates’ Career Paths.”