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Last fall Maya Bian (’20), a University of Tennessee, Knoxville, College Scholar pursuing an interdisciplinary curriculum in global health equity, came to Jeff Kovac, director of the College Scholars program, with an idea. “She made a proposal to the program to interview people in an elderly care facility in China,” says Kovac.

“All my extended family lives in China,” says Bian. “My grandfather lives in a long-term care facility in northeast China, where I’d visited him two years before. Partly because of the one-child laws, China will have the largest elderly population in the world by 2050, when one in four elderly people in the world will be in China. I wanted to get a glimpse of what that will look like.”

The College Scholars Excellence Fund supported Bian’s travel to China as well as Mandarin lessons during her winter break. “I am a heritage speaker,” says Bian. “I grew up speaking Mandarin and I can understand it quite well. I can talk about food, eating, daily living, and activities, but my reading and writing are quite poor. I went to China over winter break, lived in my grandfather’s facility, and participated in the exercise drills.” Bian interviewed 14 people in Mandarin, wrote pages of notes, and eventually translated them into English.

Maya Bian with her 2018 Ignite Serves Team Leader partner Noah Hicks.
Bian with her 2018 Ignite Serves Team Leader partner Noah Hicks.

“She did field work, which not that many people do,” says Jon Shefner, head of the Department of Sociology and Bian’s thesis advisor. “We walked through what field methods really looked like, compounded by the extraordinary character of a foreign country. She did intense scholarly work.”

After graduation in spring 2020 from the Chancellor’s Honors Program, Bian condensed her thesis, “Care, Culture, and Neoliberalism: A Case Study in a Private Long-Term Care Facility in Northeastern China,” from 25,000 to 5,000 words and submitted it to the Global Undergraduate Awards competition in the Social Sciences: Sociology and Social Policy category. “I submitted it online myself,” she says.

In September Bian learned that she was one of 40 global winners, only the second UT College Scholar to earn that honor. The first was Alex Brito (’16), now a second-year medical student at Vanderbilt University. A languages and linguistics major, Brito did her project on second languages and cognition. Another UT alumna, geography major Morgan Steckler (’20), was highly commended in the Earth and Environmental Sciences category of this year’s awards for her research on methods for predicting tornadoes and issuing warnings, specifically in the Nashville area.

This fall, Bian is taking online courses in China studies with a research focus in law and society, part of an international cohort in a two-year program at Yenching Academy of Peking University. Because she is studying from her home in Auburn, Alabama, most of her classes are between 2 and 8 a.m. “I’m hoping that this is sustainable,” she says. “And I hope we can eventually have in-person classes. I really do want the experience of asking teachers and fellow classmates questions about social, political, economic factors impacting health systems and a lot of issues on which our perceptions are very different.”

Maya Bian's team helping the Workers Defense Project in Austin, Texas on the 2018 VOLbreak trip.
Bian’s team helping the Workers Defense Project in Austin, Texas on a 2018 VOLbreak trip.

Drawn by Nuclear Engineering, Introduced to the Volunteer Spirit

Bian was born in Seattle, Washington, on the same day in 1998 that her father defended his PhD dissertation in history at the University of Washington. Her parents, Morris Bian and Hui Chen, had emigrated from China 10 years earlier. Her father went on to become a history professor at Auburn University, where her mother completed a master’s degree in accounting. Bian describes an idyllic college-town childhood—playing in her parents’ offices, skateboarding on parking decks, running cross-country,  and enjoying Auburn High School’s International Baccalaureate program. “I was super interested in chemistry,” she says, “and I loved my teachers.”

She chose UT for its nuclear engineering program. “I committed before I visited,” she says. “I thought, ‘It has the academic program that I want, so that’s enough.’ At first I felt quite lonely and not sure how to navigate college life, so I got involved in a lot of things to make connections with people.”

Bian became a first-year council member in the Student Government Association, soon becoming a government affairs committee member, communicating student opinions to the state legislature on freezing tuition, campus carry of firearms, and diversity and inclusion issues. As a sophomore, Bian was a Tickle College of Engineering senator, and as a senior she directed SGA’s external relations, coordinating outreach to the student body and more than 500 student organizations.

For all four years Bian also taught at Pond Gap Elementary on Wednesday afternoons as part of UT’s University-Assisted Community Schools program. “Teaching chemistry was fantastic,” she says, “doing lesson plans, seeing the same kids every week, and doing hands-on science experiments to convey complex scientific concepts.” In her last two years, she served as Pond Gap Service Club president.

Bian also jumped into the Jones Center for Leadership and Service, leading Ignite Serves teams of 40 incoming students before her sophomore and junior years, introducing them to leadership development, team building, diversity and inclusion issues, and service–learning.

In December 2018, she co-led a JCLS VOLbreak team of nine students on a five-day immersive service–learning experience on immigrant rights in Austin, Texas, coordinating with community partners.

“When I started at UT, I didn’t know the Volunteer Creed at all,” says Bian. “I thought, ‘What does this actually mean?’ I might have made a joke about it. Then I got really involved in the Jones Center for Leadership and Service. Being around others and hearing the creed, it doesn’t become a joke anymore. Service has been integral to what I want to do with my life and career. It wouldn’t have happened without UT, which does a good job of articulating the creed and showing you why it’s important to believe in it fully and take it seriously.”

An Evolving Academic Focus

Maya Bian with the College Scholars cohort in the Student Union
Bian with her College Scholars cohort in the Student Union.

After her first year in the nuclear engineering program, Bian spent the month of June working as an English teaching assistant at Southeast University in Nanjing, China, creating and teaching interactive activities and lessons on American culture to 30 Chinese students. She started to become interested in becoming a physician, and that fall switched her major to chemical engineering.

During her second year, her interest in health evolved into an interest in world health. She applied to College Scholars—a program in the College of Arts and Sciences in which students design their own interdisciplinary major—with a focus on global health equity. “I wanted my course of studies to center around social determinants of health—the social issues that prevent and promote health,” she says.

“She was an enthusiastic college scholar and a great organizer,” says Kovac. “In our weekly seminar she was very active in asking questions.”

That summer, she volunteered as a community health intern at Guan Dong Jie Community Hospital in Wuhan. In July she took courses in advanced Mandarin and Chinese society and politics at Wuhan University while volunteering at an eco-friendly farm in Chengdu, where she led an outdoor camp for underserved Chinese children and designed and led cross-cultural activities for British and Chinese high schoolers.

In the fall semester of her junior year, Bian took a graduate-level sociology seminar, Sociological Foundations of Political Economy, from Shefner, who had become her mentor. “He is an excellent mentor for college scholars,” says Kovac.

That spring Bian did preliminary ethnographic fieldwork on aging and care with the School for International Training Study Abroad. After two weeks at an SIT launch site in Washington, DC, Bian explored the traditional joint-family-care system in New Delhi, India; compared post-apartheid notions of safety and institutional care in urban, semiurban, and rural locales around Capetown, South Africa; and examined links between gender, age, and health-seeking behavior and the politicization of state caregiving in Sao Paolo, Brazil.

Then came her thesis. “She was interested in the issue of aged Chinese folks having their needs met,” says Shefner.

“Dr. Shefner brought a lot of clarity and gave me guidance,” says Bian. “He helped me think through what I was looking for. And he facilitated things. The process of applying to the Institutional Review Board for approval for human-subjects research was intimidating. I had to go back and redo the application four times. He was the person who could calm me down. He said, ‘This is a process that you can go through, Maya.’”

After winter break in China, Bian had to assemble her research. “By the end of the semester she was doing terrific work,” says Shefner. “Maya is an immensely impressive young woman.”

“The thesis was absolutely the most rewarding thing I did while at UT,” says Bian. “It merged my interests in health equity, a global understanding of China’s place in the world, policies toward long-term care, studying from the interviews, and learning more about my heritage as well.”

Looking back on her UT career, she reflects, “I learned so much that I didn’t expect to learn. I would never have expected that by my first or second year, I’d be on a completely different academic course than the one I started out in. College Scholars was great in enabling me to pursue an interdisciplinary course of study, and it was a great group of people. I never expected to be where I am. I really did find my niche at UT.”


Brooks Clark (865-310-1277,