Psychology professor Kenneth Wang has spent a lifetime adjusting to change

Sunday, April 21, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:50 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Kenneth Wang, assistant professor in MU's Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology, teaches a counseling class March 18 in Townsend Hall. Wang cultivates a global perspective in his classes, introducing Americans to cultural experiences or easing the transition for international students.

COLUMBIA — When he was in grade school Kenneth Wang was slapped for being disrespectful in class.

He was a fifth-grader in Taiwan, where students traditionally stand up to answer questions. But Wang had attended grade school in Alabama for five years and was accustomed to just speaking up.

His teacher didn't know the rules were new to him, but Wang’s confidence took a hit nonetheless.

"There’s different norms, different rules in different cultures," he said. "Once you don’t know these rules, I think there’s a hit in self-efficacy, and I feel like 'oh, I don’t know stuff.'"

Such experiences would inspire Wang to ease that difficult transition for other students.

An assistant professor in the MU Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology, Wang cultivates a global perspective in his classes, introducing Americans to cultural experiences or easing the transition for international students.

Wang spent his life navigating between two countries. Born in Taiwan, he moved to Alabama when he was 5 years old while his father pursued a Ph.D. He was the first Asian student at his elementary school.

He returned to Taiwan when he was 10 years old and remained through undergraduate school, military service in the Taiwanese army and a few years of work.

Then, he moved to Chicago for a master's degree and returned to Taiwan to work. When he decided to get his doctorate, he came back to the U.S., this time to Penn State University and later to the University of Southern California for an internship.   

He remained in the U.S. afterward, working in the counseling center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2009, he joined the MU faculty. 

Bouncing back and forth made him hyper-aware of differences — rules and customs that vary between countries. As he navigated new cultures, he struggled with anxiety to understand where he belonged. 

"That’s really hard, and that makes me feel less self-efficacious, less confident, and then inferior if I’m comparing myself based on those standards," he said.

As a faculty member at MU, he wants to create dialogues to ease the transition for international students. He's helped with multicultural training, incorporated diversity issues in his classroom and supervised students on an immersion trip to Taiwan. 

His background also drives his research about the cross-national adjustment process — helping people traveling between countries make the switch. 

He's working on a scale to measure how friendly international students perceive the MU community to be toward them, helping to make campus more welcoming and globally aware.

"Diversity across different races and nationality is important," he said. "It’s important to be respectful and to be competent to work with people who are different from us and that diversity is celebrated." 

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