USask graduate Dr. Emma Chen 陈星 (MEd’19, GTPC’22, PhD’24) received her doctoral degree in curriculum studies on June 3. (Photo: Submitted)

Student’s lived experiences inspire doctoral research at USask

Dr. Emma Chen, who earned her PhD during Spring Convocation, explored the stories of three Chinese immigrant mothers as a graduate student in the College of Education.

By Shannon Boklaschuk

Award-winning University of Saskatchewan (USask) graduate Dr. Emma Chen 陈星 (MEd’19, GTPC’22, PhD’24) received her doctoral degree in curriculum studies during the College of Education’s Spring Convocation ceremony on June 3. 

Chen, a scholar, educator, and author who was born and raised in a small city in Inner Mongolia, Mainland China, came to USask after studying at Beijing Language and Culture University. Before beginning her PhD studies, she earned her Master of Education degree in educational administration at USask in 2019, followed by her Graduate Teaching Preparation Certificate in 2022. 

Throughout her time at USask, Chen was the recipient of numerous scholarships and awards, including a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Doctoral Fellowship, the Provost’s Graduate Student Teacher Award, and the Teacher Scholar Doctoral Fellowship at USask. Earlier this year, her first children’s book, Molly Misses Nainai, was shortlisted for two Saskatchewan Book Awards.

In July 2023, Chen joined Western Washington University, where she currently serves as an assistant professor in the Department of Early Childhood, Elementary and Multilingual Education. In celebration of her graduation from USask, the Green&White asked Chen about her time at the university, including her favourite memory as a USask student.

Why did you choose to study at the University of Saskatchewan?

In 2017, our family immigrated to Canada and settled in Saskatoon. It was a great opportunity for me to hit the “reset” button on my life. I chose to return to school and applied for the master’s program in education at the University of Saskatchewan.

You received a PhD in curriculum studies at Spring 2024 Convocation. Why did you choose this area of study?

Becoming a mom sparked my interest in the field of education. During my graduate school years, it became increasingly clear that I wanted to dive deeper into the theories, knowledge, and pedagogies in this area. So, I applied for the PhD program and was extremely fortunate to work with my supervisor, Dr. Debbie Pushor, in curriculum studies. It has been a wonderful, enriching four-year journey of learning and growth.

You were a graduate student in USask’s College of Education. What was the experience like in the college?

I spent six years in the College of Education, completing both my master’s and PhD programs. During this time, I had the privilege of learning from and working with some of the kindest, most knowledgeable, and supportive professors. They made my experience truly memorable. I deeply appreciate the connections I made and the support I received over the years.

You were recently a finalist for two Saskatchewan Book Awards, in the First Book Award and Children’s Literature Award categories, for your book Molly Misses Nainai. Congratulations! How did it feel to receive that good news?

Thank you. I was excited to see the book acknowledged on the shortlists for the Saskatchewan Book Awards. I look forward to the opportunities these awards bring, allowing more people, especially immigrant families, to access the book and see their stories reflected in it.

Dr. Emma Chen (PhD) was a finalist for two Saskatchewan Book Awards, in the First Book Award and Children’s Literature Award categories, for her book Molly Misses Nainai. (Photo: Submitted)

What inspired you to write the book?

Nainai means grandma in Mandarin Chinese, and Molly is my daughter’s name. The story is based on a real-life experience when our family first moved to Canada and Molly was three years old. She had to separate from her grandma for the first time in her life, and it was extremely hard for her. It was also difficult to explain to a young child what a “visitor’s visa” was and why her grandma had to leave the country after a certain time. I witnessed how much Molly missed Nainai. It was Molly’s story. I just wrote it down on her behalf. I had to.

Your doctoral thesis is titled “Transnational Parent Knowledge in Heritage Language Education: A Narrative Inquiry with Three Chinese Immigrant Mothers.” What inspired you to pursue this area of research?

My research journey began with my own experiences as an immigrant mother exploring ways to support my children’s heritage language education. My lived experience inspired me to delve deeper into this topic. With the support of academic literature, I gained knowledge that helped me better understand the positions of transnational parents in society and equipped me with tools to unpack the experiences of the parents in my research. The stories of the three mothers in my study guided me in unexpected directions. By examining their daily language practices, I highlight how mothers in transnational and multilingual settings support their children’s bilingualism. These narratives, developed collaboratively, reveal the dynamic aspects of language teaching and learning within transnational families. They emphasize the mothers’ strategies for maintaining heritage language, their resilience against linguistic and racial challenges, and their crucial role in fostering their children’s bilingual identities and cultural connections.

What is your favourite memory from your time as a USask student?

I remember the first course I took in my master’s program when I had just moved from China to Canada. As a newcomer to Saskatoon and the local educational context, I felt lost and confused during class discussions. My peers, mostly local in-service teachers, shared insights about events and policies in Saskatoon schools that I could barely understand. Feeling overwhelmed, I reached out to my professor and expressed my struggles. She kindly sat me down in her office and affirmed that my international experiences and perspectives were equally valuable. She told me that my contributions could broaden the discussions and benefit everyone in the class. That conversation stayed with me and changed how I viewed myself as an immigrant. It set the tone for my later studies. That course was on children’s literature, which I now teach as a faculty member at Western Washington University. That professor, Dr. Bev Brenna, also edited my first book. It feels like a full-circle moment.

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