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Zhongxiu (Alice) He

After Tiananmen, SFU grad now living the Canadian dream

October 4, 2007

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Stuart Colcleugh

When Zhongxiu (Alice) He receives her English PhD diploma during SFU’s Oct.4 convocation ceremonies it will mark a defining chapter in a remarkable immigrant success story rooted in determination and years of hard work.             

And joining her in the procession to get diplomas will almost certainly be scores of graduates from Alice College. The Burnaby language-training centre He and her husband Jie Zhou founded 12 years ago has enabled thousands of international students to pass Canadian standardized tests for English proficiency before moving on to universities across the country.

He, now 56, came to SFU in 1988 as an exchange student from China and soon realized she didn’t want to go back. “I only planned to be here for a year,” says the West Vancouver resident who was then teaching English at Jilin University in Changchun.

“But I began to love this university and this country right away and I decided to try and stay because I thought my daughter would have a much better life here. So I applied for the MA program.”

But her university had other ideas. “When the head of the university came to visit SFU he told the English department not to enroll me.” The department accepted her anyway.

He’s future, and particularly that of her family in China was still far from certain, however, when fate intervened in the form of the Tiananmen incident in 1989. With the help of immigration officials, He says, “my family came over a year later and we can be here in Canada for ever.”

She completed her master’s degree quickly and went directly into the PhD program while working as a babysitter, an SFU teaching assistant and eventually as an instructor at Coquitlam College.

He’s husband, a former Chinese lawyer whose English was poor, worked at menial jobs until 1995 when He interrupted her doctoral studies and they got a mortgage to start their own language school.

It was a tough slog at first, but after several years of 12- to 14-hour days Alice College took off. He says it has helped thousands of international students with the English proficiency certificates they need to enter directly into Canadian universities.

But all along, she says, “I was dreaming about finishing my PhD.”

And with the deadline to complete her doctoral requirements fast approaching, and her supervisor David Stouck nearing retirement, she came back to SFU briefly in 1998 and then again in 2007 to finish what she’d started almost 20 years ago.

Now, with her degree in hand, her daughter Alana Zhou recently graduated with an SFU degree in business administration, and the family comfortably situated in a beautiful home, He says she’s ready to retire. “We’re going to visit China first and then see the world,” she says. “And I’m going to read. I’m going to read all those great English novels I haven’t had time for.”
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