Zhen Zhang, MSW ’16, Helping the “Left-Behind” Children of China

Alumni; Social Work

Zhen Zhang, MSW ’16, returned to China after graduation armed with a passion for helping children — and the Brown School training to create meaningful impact.

Zhang has created programs to help thousands of “left-behind” children, children in rural and impoverished parts of China whose parents leave them, often to find work in cities. Now, Zhang has been promoted to the post of general-secretary of the RICI Foundation, one of China’s leading non-governmental organizations in the field of child and youth development.

In that role, she will continue to expand the foundation’s programs to improve the psychological health and resiliency of children, as well as training teachers to deliver programs effectively.

“The Brown School taught me to think from the perspective of the target population, which reminded me to be careful in program design and scaling-up,” she said.

Zhang was able to customize her MSW program with a concentration in international social and economic development, as well as specializations in management and social entrepreneurship.

“I acquired knowledge about poverty reduction, nonprofit management, and how to incorporate business into nonprofit programs,” she said. “The evaluation skills and mindset I learned at the Brown School have become a key part of my work and made our program stand out.” Even after graduation, she called on her former professors when she encounters challenges or needs a fresh perspective. 

Her work focuses on the relatively recent phenomenon of left-behind children: a generation of Chinese children who are growing up without their parents, causing social and psychological distress. Estimates of the number of left-behind children range as high as 60 million.

Zhang created one of her programs, the “Ignite Project,” while she was a student at the Brown School. The program conducts camps for left-behind children to teach them social skills. Last year, nearly 500 undergraduates in China participated in the project and conducted camps for more than 3,500 children. The program aims to increase children’s resilience, as well as the confidence, empathy and interpersonal skills of the undergraduates.

She is also dedicated to providing all children with the psychological support they need to thrive. A short video she helped produce, “Express Love in the Right Way,” promotes positive discipline and reminds parents and other caregivers how their uncontrolled emotions and behavior can traumatize their children. The film was honored at the 2017 China International Philanthropy Movie Festival.

The RICI Foundation is now sponsoring the research of Brown School Professor Shenyang Guo, Zhang said, which promotes social work research and program evaluation in mainland China. Next year, the foundation plans to hold a series of activities and forums on the topic of children and youth development practices.

Zhang is also committed to providing practica and jobs to Brown School students and alumni. RICI recently became one of the School’s affiliated practicum sites and has begun hosting students. The organization also hired Brown School alums Jingqi Guan, MSW ’16 and Yibin Yang, MSW ’17, whose jobs include program, training and curriculum design and implementation, as well as running the Ignite Project.

“The Brown School has equipped me with the necessary values, knowledge, skills, professional network and, most importantly, the courage of pursuing my dream. Now as I’m striving towards my career goals, I’d love to involve additional Brown School alumni, students and professors in my work,” Zhang said.