"Writing ... has completely transformed my life, and through education, I can give some of that same power to students," says third-year doctoral student Vicky Chen, here with her guide dog, Rachel. Steve Zylius / UCI

Finding her way

Visually impaired Ph.D. student has her sights set on becoming a writing instructor

Vicky Chen wears many hats – educator, student, fiction writer, fantasy buff and world traveler. One constant, though, is the enthusiastic black lab at her side: Rachel, her guide dog.

Chen, who was born visually impaired, is a third-year Ph.D. student in UCI’s School of Education. She specializes in language, literacy & technology and aspires to teach writing at the university level, as either a professor or a writing center mentor.

“Everything I’ve accomplished I’ve done because I love stories. I just want to keep telling them, and reading them, and teaching others how to do it well,” says Chen, 28. “Storytelling is like everyday life, but with a bit of magic.”

Her road to a doctorate began in the Bay Area, where she grew up listening to audiobooks with her identical twin sister, dreaming of other worlds and analyzing the way people told stories. Though Chen was always passionate about learning, the twins were often put in slower-paced classes due to their disability – until their parents, both immigrants, learned to navigate the education system and enrolled them in more advanced courses. Working “extra hard to prove myself,” Chen says, was worth it to pursue writing, which had become central to her life.

“When I first started writing in elementary school – at the same time I started feeling a distance between myself and my peers – stories were a way of escaping to other worlds and living other lives,” she says. “Since talking to other students became more and more tough, I began to write my thoughts instead.” Chen followed her talent to UC Berkeley, where she earned a B.A. in rhetoric.

After graduation, she took four years off to travel and teach, moving between California and Taiwan and working a series of tutoring jobs. When she decided to pursue a doctoral degree, Chen was torn between education and English literature. The latter “would’ve been the more conventional path for what I hope to do – teach university-level writing,” she says. “But I don’t care about being conventional.”

Choosing education has been “hugely practical” for Chen, as she prefers the hands-on nature of teaching to academic research, though she does plenty of both. And working next door to the UCI Writing Project, an initiative to train teachers in literacy education, has been “an incredible learning experience,” she says.

In addition to observing the teaching processes through the Writing Project, Chen is currently conducting research on the components of a proficient analytical essay, studying which “parts” – types of commentary, vocabulary, structure – do the most to elevate student writing. Teachers, she says, might use strategies informed by this work to improve classroom writing instruction.

“Writing – and story writing in particular – is very much integrated into how I live and ‘see’ the world,” she says. “It has completely transformed my life, and through education, I can give some of that same power to students.”

Transitioning to a doctoral program “can be tough, as it’s much more intensive than undergrad,” Chen says, but UCI’s welcoming environment and accommodations made her decision to enroll an easy one.

“What affected my choice to come here was how much the faculty seemed to honestly care about the success of their students and how the other graduate students actively tried to help new students like myself settle in and figure things out,” she says.

Although attending UCI has presented some unavoidable challenges – such as Chen’s inability to drive or the difficulty of navigating Ring Road – most are surmountable. Colleagues can transport her to necessary research sites and transcribe handwritten student papers into typed versions that she can more easily access. She also got her first guide dog the summer before coming to UCI. “Rachel helps with the rest – when she’s not eyeing cookie crumbs under the table,” Chen notes, laughing.

Her next big projects: presenting her work at a conference, writing a novel and possibly pursuing an M.F.A. in creative fiction.

“I love literacy education because I’m so invested in reading and writing myself,” Chen says. “It’s rewarding to teach something that you’re really enthusiastic about and that you’ve really spent your life doing.”

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