Read our interview with Jin Yun Chow about her educational and life experience growing up in Hong Kong, graduating as the valedictorian at Princeton University, doing graduate school at Stanford University and co-founding the Stanford-based educational company Polygence.
Your website bio tells us a lot about your academic interests and academic trajectory, so how about let’s start with something lighter -- What are some fun facts about yourself?
Let’s see… I was born and raised in Hong Kong; I am double-jointed at the thumbs; I have been practicing and learning Chinese martial arts for two years now and have represented Stanford at competitions; I can do both left and right splits as well as the middle splits; and I’m a huge nerd for languages! I also feel very privileged and lucky to have grown up trilingual in Hong Kong -- getting Cantonese, Mandarin and English essentially for free is one of the best gifts a child can have.
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Why did you decide to co-found an education company - Polygence?
The idea actually started as a dinner table conversation between me and my roommates. We were talking about how learning at school is largely dissociated from intellectual excitement. We know that there is intense competition in university admissions worldwide and that it is something that is on every parent and student’s mind -- but how do we give students an edge in college admissions by leveraging their unique intellectual talents and passions?
This is also mentioned in our Letter from the Founders, but I think our society has reached the point where learning is unequivocally the antithesis of play. Can we even imagine nowadays that in Latin, the word ludus means both school and game/play? That dinner table conversation was one that got me thinking about what I can do as an aspiring educator to restore the polysemy of “ludus” and to put the fun back into education.
This is how the concept of Polygence got started -- I wanted to build a space where students can experiment with ideas, push their intellectual boundaries, learn from the most passionate and experienced mentors and most importantly, realize that learning doesn’t have to be a chore. We believe we hold the key to university admissions -- it’s not just about test scores, GPA’s and laundry lists of extra-curriculars -- it’s about showcasing a student’s genuine passion through unique, substantial projects.
What do you think played the greatest role in your journey to become the Valedictorian of Princeton?
Living in the moment. Transitioning from a small high school in Hong Kong to a university like Princeton, I knew from the start that I would be a small fish in a big pond, and ironically, that was what liberated me to fully immerse myself in the pursuit of intellectual challenges without worrying about performance and grades. I sought out mentors who supported me through my intellectual and personal growth and engaged in independent projects that I had never before dreamed I would be capable of doing. I grew to become a firm believer in the fact that education is an end in itself and not only just a ticket into industry. There is obviously value in keeping one eye on future career ambitions and planning accordingly, but the importance of being able to enjoy and fully immerse oneself in the very process of intellectual inquiry is much underrated in our current society.
How did your experiences in Hong Kong shape your views on education and project-based learning?
My parents sent me to a school called ISF Academy the very year that it was established. Because it was such a new and experimental school at that time, I got the very special experience of not really having a standard curriculum and was given the privilege of evolving with the school as it grew and expanded. My early education was almost exclusively project-based and interdisciplinary in nature. As third graders, we were taught to find connections between subject areas that would otherwise be seen as distinct from each other; we experimented with simple robotics design projects and history projects that required arts and crafts as well as reading and writing. The highly interdisciplinary nature of my grade school education made it such that even as a child, I saw the world as a patchwork of interconnected moving parts filled with interesting problems to tackle and to solve. I think one of the most valuable things a school can teach a child is precisely that although mathematics may be taught separately from history and design, they have more in common than one might think, and any real-life project that attempts to tackle a real-life problem will likely bring together more academic fields than one.
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What kind of gap do you see between what US colleges expect from students and the skills of students from Hong Kong?
I think the main gap is that students from Hong Kong know a lot, but they don’t know how to ask questions. It may sound deceptively simple but the ability to ask good questions is in fact a vital skill to thriving in the American college system. This boils down to what I see as the failure of Hong Kong’s education system to spark intellectual curiosity in its students. Another huge challenge on this road of reforming our education system is convincing well-meaning parents that the cultivation of intellectual curiosity and wonder is worth a whole lot more than sky-high test scores.
What's your advice to parents with teenagers?
The single piece of advice I have is that questions are worth more than facts. It’s not unlike the age-old adage that teaching someone to fish is much more useful than gifting him fish. There is nothing more valuable than instilling in children the love of learning and a sense of intellectual curiosity that will accompany them throughout their lives. There is no such thing as a “stupid question” for children -- a curious mind is the only prerequisite for expanding intellecutal horizons. Closely related to this is recognizing the value of learning by doing and by exploring despite the fact that the journey may take longer than one of simple rote learning and information regurgitation. This is precisely why I co-founded Polygence on the mission that students should be given more agency in their own learning and education. Under the guidance of exceptional mentors, students will get to develop and hone their own research questions and get a hand at designing their own path of intellectual inquiry. But to get there, children have to first be taught that asking questions is a great thing!
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What’s a typical day like for you as a grad student at Stanford?
Last year I was teaching Stanford’s French language sequence, so my daily routine was largely structured around teaching and lesson planning. I would get up around 7 am, have breakfast, get to the classroom by 8:15, then teach from 8:30-9:20. Then I normally do lesson planning for the next day immediately after teaching. After lunch, I normally have my own literature seminars to attend, and in the late afternoon I normally have Chinese Martial Arts training with the Stanford team. The evenings are usually spent working and having dinner with my boyfriend.
You have taught French at Stanford, tutored prison inmates in the Princeton area, mentored high school students from Hong Kong etc. - What makes you so passionate about education?
I didn’t fall in love with learning because of a book, or because of a historical figure, or even because of a family member; I fell in love with learning because of my teachers. Education is the single most powerful tool to equip and inspire young minds, and there is nothing more rewarding than offering someone else the transformative experience of seeing the world through the lens of intellectual curiosity and inquiry. The world has always and will always offer more than we could ever hope to explore, but it takes stellar educators to guide and equip young minds through the process. My experience teaching and mentoring in the New Jersey prison system has also made me an even firmer believer that quality education should be accessible to everyone. I am really looking forward to the day when Polygence has grown enough to be able to offer pro-bono services and scholarships to underserved communities.
Did you have mentors yourself in the past?
Academic and personal mentors have been the single most important motivator for my own intellectual trajectory. My eighth grade English teacher was the one who introduced me to the joys of literature and poetry, and I credit her with much of my decision to major in Comparative Literature and pursue a career in education. I still have fond memories of reading Wordsworth and Blake’s poems under her guidance and embarking on fun creative projects that engage with the literary texts that we have been studying. To this day, she is a dear friend and mentor to me and I mean it when I say I would not be where I am now without her.
In terms of my experience in higher education, I have also been lucky enough to have been introduced to many strong female figures in my academic experiences at both Princeton and Stanford. Building personal and intellectual relationships with these professors-turned-mentors have helped me tremendously with my interpersonal skills as well as given me a support network far away from home.
What has been your most rewarding mentorship experience?
Among all of my experiences during those memorable four years, I am most proud of the independent social justice project that I started and built from scratch with some of my close friends: Princeton Reentry Employment and Preparation (PREP). PREP was a prison education program I started that provided vocational and employment skills training for incarcerated individuals who were about to reenter the workforce in society. Building this project and teaching with my team in New Jersey’s prisons was one of the most challenging and humbling experiences I have ever had and it marked the beginning of my commitment to and passion for education and for giving back to society.