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One step at a time: China native goes from third-grade reading level to master's degree

Deling Zhang has accomplished so much after utilizing the Adult Basic Education classes at M State, and now she has a good job to support her daughter, Amelia, 3, and herself. Submitted Photo

When Deling Zhang moved from Qingdao, China, to Detroit Lakes in 2008, she didn't know many people. She had her then-husband, but the relationship didn't work out, and she was left with virtually no one. That's when Zhang turned to her education with a goal: she wanted to improve her English so she could land a good job and support herself.

"I started going to Adult (Basic) Education classes at M State to learn English," said Zhang, remembering getting quite the shock. "They can determine what level you're in—my English skills were a third-grade level."

Thinking her English was much better because she had practiced speaking the language in China, Zhang was not pleased.

"I didn't like the results," she said.

So she began spending her days in the Adult Basic Education classroom, working with the teachers there, and it was that drive that would carry her all the way through, graduating last past fall of 2016, with a master's degree in applied statistics from North Dakota State University.

Putting in the work

"When I was there at Adult Basic Ed, I was there from 9 (a.m.) to 6 (p.m.)," Zhang said, remembering working very hard to earn her GED.

And it wasn't easy. Even with all that time spent in the classroom, working to improve her English from a third-grade level, she still didn't pass the writing portion of the GED the first time.

"I had wanted to give up many times when I worked with the tutors at Adult Basic Education," said Zhang. "It was very hard for me to understand the culture here and also try to learn English."

After getting her pre-GED results, she remembers running into the bathroom and bursting into tears.

"I felt that moment like, 'This is it. I am giving up on the education,'" she said.

That's when Amy Fish, the Adult Basic Education coordinator, checked on Zhang and, with a hug and a little motivation, Zhang turned her frustrations into determination—she buckled down.

Then, in April of 2009, she finally passed.

"I was jumping around and called my tutors that I passed the GED," Zhang remembers. "It was the best feelings for a long time, since I came to America. I think it made me to believe I did it—first step—so next step is to start the college."

And she did start chipping away at general education classes at M State.

"Mostly I took English classes," Zhang remembers, always looking to continue improving.

For one year she worked to build up a strong GPA, and then she took another leap of faith.

"I applied to Concordia," said Zhang, recalling her feelings when the acceptance letter came in the mail. "That was exciting!"

Zhang accepted a scholarship, and continued on, but she credits the Adult Basic Education classes—and even her general education classes at M State—for preparing her for her next step.

"I always feel like I'm an alligator—one step at a time," Zhang said.

But graduating cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in healthcare financial management still wasn't enough to satiate her educational hunger.

"After I finished my B.S. Degree, I feel like I actually need to continue to pursue higher education...there's always competition," said Zhang.

So she went on, getting accepted into the applied statistics master's program at North Dakota State University.

But there was another bump in the road—Zhang found out she was expecting.

"I got pregnant, but some things unplanned happened," said Zhang.

She ended up having to drop her classes, giving birth to a beautiful little girl nine months later—but a daughter detour still didn't stop her. Going back in 2014 to finish her "long journey" and get that Master's Degree, Zhang was able to graduate two years later, after the fall semester of 2016.

Reaping the rewards

After struggling to find a job that paid well when she first came to the United States, Zhang is now using her degree and working at a U.S. Bank call center as a business operations analyst. She lives in Fargo with her three-year-old daughter, Amelia—but, always an "alligator," she's still thinking about next steps.

"Getting my doctorate degree, I think, is a plan," she said, "but I'm not going to do right now because I have a three-year-old daughter."

Zhang said she'll probably go back to school when Amelia is seven or eight, for now, she wants to focus on being a good mom and supporting her daughter.

"I always like schooling. I always feel like it's a purpose," she said.

In the meantime, she hopes her story can inspire others to be "like the alligator."

"To me, I feel like taking one step at a time will help you," she said.

Looking back, she says she wouldn't have been able to achieve what she has without her first step at the Adult Basic Education classes.

"Thanks to everyone who works at the Adult Basic Ed who helped me start my career to pursue college."

Grateful, Zhang says she is still in touch with all of her tutors—they've become like family.