Social-welfare pioneer wins honor

Updated: 2013-05-20 11:07

By Chang Jun in San Francisco (China Daily)

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Social-welfare pioneer wins honor

Zhang Xiulan (center), dean of the School of Social Development and Public Policy at Beijing Normal University, enjoys a lighthearted moment on Friday at a banquet at the University of California, Berkeley, to honor her as the recipient of the 2012 Elise and Walter A. Haas International Award. Joining her are UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau (right) and Professor Emeritus Leonard Miller, who supervised Zhang's doctoral research in the 1990s. Chang Jun / China Daily

Zhang Xiulan, dean of Beijing Normal University's School of Social Development and Public Policy, addressed graduates of the University of California, Berkeley, both as an alumna and the latest recipient of the school's Elise and Walter A. Haas International Award.

The awards committee in March chose Zhang, who earned a PhD from UC Berkeley's School of Social Welfare in 1999, as the 2012 recipient of the prestigious award. It was established in 1964 to recognize Berkeley alumni who are natives, citizens and residents of a country other than the United States, and who have distinguished records of service to that country.

Zhang, 50, said at a campus reception in her honor on Friday: "I never anticipated that I would receive this. It came as a big surprise."

Considered one of China's leading experts on social assistance and welfare, Zhang helped formulate policies on child protection; orphans' rights; health insurance for children; and services for children, family, adults, the elderly and people with disabilities.

"In other words, China's most marginalized individuals and communities," she said.

After completing her PhD work 14 years ago, Zhang returned to China in 2002 hoping to help introduce the concept and application of social welfare to her native country.

"I'm the first Chinese mainlander majoring in social welfare [at Berkeley], and the first Chinese returning to China with this background," she said. "Not many people knew what I was doing."

Zhang accepted an offer from Beijing Normal University, which back then didn't offer an academic major in social welfare or teaching staff in the discipline. Zhang began the school from the ground up, using a grant of 100,000 yuan (about $12,500 at the time) and one assistant. She used her own savings to subsidize the operation, including recruitment of faculty.

Since those modest beginnings, Zhang has expanded the school into a comprehensive learning institution with 70 faculty members and a multifaceted curriculum. Its name - School of Social Development and Public Policy - reflect the two fields into which she has most heavily invested her time and energy.

"You first observe the rapid social changes in China; opportunities are everywhere. You can't help but want to be the driving force to help move the country toward the right direction," Zhang said.

She has led her team to serve as a crucial research hub and think tank for China, providing government policy-makers a variety of perspectives on dealing with pressing social issues such as poverty, child welfare, public health and education.

Zhang's pioneering work has led to the establishment of programs to assist poor and aging Chinese, as well as support services through various channels for the country's large population of teenage migrant workers.

"She was very inspiring among her fellows, and she seemed likely to be among the movers and shakers of her society and the world," said Leonard Miller, a now-retired professor of social welfare at Berkeley who supervised Zhang's doctoral research in the 1990s. "I'm so proud of her, since what she does has such a tremendous impact on the Chinese people, especially the poor and the underserved."

In formally presenting Zhang with the Haas International Award, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said: "Your career exemplifies Berkeley's highest values. Your contributions in education, social reform and public policy have made you one of the most renowned citizens of China."

Zhang is the sixth Chinese recipient of the Haas award. Her predecessors include Nobel chemistry laureate Yuan T. Lee (2011) and scientist and former Tsinghua University vice-superintendent Zhang Guangdou (1981).