Find Your Passion: Sign Points Fulbright Scholar to China

Jessica HetheringtonHetherington has a passion for the people and culture of China. (Photo by Zach Riggins)

By Bill Gerdes

A 30-minute tour of The University of Alabama in 2006 changed Jessica Hetherington’s life.

During the visit, Hetherington, then 17, noticed a sign congratulating the winner of a Fulbright Scholarship.

“I had no idea at that time what the sign meant, but I knew it had to be a pretty significant award to merit its own sign,” recalls the 22-year-old senior, who is majoring in economics with a concentration in world business.

When she returned to her Dadeville home, she researched the Fulbright Scholarship and its emphasis on research abroad and decided to make a Fulbright Scholarship her goal.

She has achieved that goal and later this summer will head for China on a Fulbright Scholarship, the fifth time she has visited the country. This time she will conduct research comparing and contrasting the personal economic profiles of urban migrant workers – Mingong – with the rural peasants who remain in rural areas and analyze the impact the workers have on the economy.

China has had the fastest growing major economy in the world for the past 30 years with an average annual gross domestic product growth rate of more than 10 percent.

Hetherington says she had planned all along to learn a foreign language, either Russian or Chinese, and from the beginning of her time at UA was aiming at a concentration in international business.

Jessica Hetherington
The economics major gets a hug at a village in China. Her upcoming trip will mark the fifth time Hetherington has traveled to China.

“I was leaning toward Chinese because of the country’s rich culture,” she says. That “leaning” became a passion for the people, culture and language of China.

“I enrolled in a Chinese class (she earned a minor in Mandarin Chinese), I began studying Chinese culture, and I began reaching out to Chinese students who came to UA to study English. I helped them set up bank accounts, learn how to shop economically, but most importantly, I taught them how to navigate American university society.”

She also was driven, she says, to learn more about the world, particularly China.

“I co-created the University’s first Chinese Culture Club,” she says, and she is president of the Alabama International Relations Club. She credits the AIRC with increasing her interest in international business. The AIRC contributes to the advancement of international cooperation and leadership development through two significant initiatives. UA students developed a volunteer foreign language program for local middle school students, and they hosted the 2010 Alabama Model U.N. Conference for regional high school students.

Hetherington’s passion for China was fueled even more, she says, when she visited China for a semester language program, where she structured and facilitated an International Relations Club at Shandong Economic Institute and held a three-day Model United Nations Forum.

“I was really touched when nearly half of the students stayed afterward to speak with me. When one of the professors came up to me and said, ‘I had no idea Americans were so open and kind-hearted,’ I knew I was doing what I was meant to do,” she says.

Jessica Hetherington
The Dadeville native enjoys China's natural beauty. Hetherington, who co-created UA's first Chinese Culture Club, is studying migrant workers in China.

While in China, she spent a month traveling the China coast and climbed the Himalayas and visited a number of Tibetan Buddhist temples. Her most recent visit was last fall when she finalized details of her stay and study with Chinese officials.

“The Chinese people are very hospitable,” she says.

Hetherington says she plans to be in China through 2011 when she completes her research projects and submits the report to government officials. Her study area is Changechun, capital of Jilin Province in northeastern China where an elevated transit system will be under construction and will draw a large number of migrant workers. Following that, she plans to return to UA to present her work, then pursue a doctoral degree at Stanford or Harvard where she hopes to compare Chinese and American migrant workers.

“The issue of migrant workers is not an issue completely unique to China but an international issue inherently present in our globalized society,” she said.

Hetherington is the daughter of Samuel and Glenda Hetherington. Her mother is a registered nurse, and her father is a civil engineer. She has an older sister, Jennifer Hetherington, who graduated from UA in December 2009 and now works in Washington, D.C. as a construction engineer.

She enjoys dancing and running half and full marathons.

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This story is part of the Find Your Passion feature section of the UA home page. For more stories, please visit Find Your Passion or Crimson Spotlight. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.