Dr. Heng Zhao has played a leading role in the evolution of Morgan Park Academy’s global studies program since 2013. A dynamic and much-loved teacher of Mandarin language and Chinese culture in the Upper School and Middle School, she also has directed our Upper School global studies program, including Project Week, since 2016.

Dr. Zhao holds a Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University, a Master’s of Education from East China Normal University, and an undergraduate degree from Nanjing Normal University.


What is the Global Studies program at Morgan Park Academy? Why is it a key part of the educational experience for students?

Global leadership is one of the major characteristics of the MPA experience. It is what we are. It is explicitly expressed in our school’s mission and value statements.

This has two main components, starting with communication in languages other than English. From Pre-K through fourth grade, students split the school year among French, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese, studying a different language each trimester. They choose a primary language starting in fifth grade, and carry that through Upper School, where our graduation requirements mandate at least three years of a world language. Many students take a fourth year, and some even study more than one world language.

Equally important is a student’s understanding of different people and cultures. At MPA, we we appreciate and celebrate the broad variety of cultures present in our community.

Students on Diversity Council actively organize and celebrate Diwali, Lunar New Year, Mexican Independence Day every year, Black History Month, Women’s History Month and etc., every year. We have international week including an international food fair during the lunch. All school communities contribute different kind of food across the world.

Every year we have international students coming from different countries. We have families hosting international students for years and we also have families hosting short-term exchange students.

Service learning is another thing that we do well to promote global leadership. We have two all school service days each year which we volunteer in the Chicagoland. We include services in some of our Project Week trips. We also have students doing services by their own both internationally and in their own communities.

At MPA, we encourage service learning in a way to stretch students’ comfort zones, to bring them into contact with others in need, and to foster a universal code of compassion.

Project Week is an MPA tradition for nearly 25 years now. What benefits do Upper School students get from these experiences, whether they are traveling to new places or exploring new things closer to home?

If you ask alumni about the best part of their MPA experience, Project Week trips are among the most common answers. Our alumni often mention that when they go to college, they find how rarely their peers have had experiences like that.

Such unique experiences make MPA students feel more natural and comfortable when they are surrounded by different people from a larger world. No matter if students travel far from home or learn here in Chicago, they are all precious experiential learning beyond the classroom.

Our Project Week trips are designed to educate students in the four domains of global competence, as defined by the Asia Society, a global, non-profit organization, equipping them to investigate the world, recognize perspectives, communicate ideas, and take action.

Through Project Week, students are aware and interested in learning about the larger world beyond their own community. They recognize that different people have different perspectives. They might not agree with or even encounter such perspectives, but they are aware and understand that each perspective is built over the long term, step by step through regional history, culture, and current events. Therefore, all perspectives should be respected and studied with an open mind.

Since students recognize different perspectives and they are proficient not only in English but also in at least one other world language, they can communicate ideas more effectively with diverse groups of people toward a common goal. Our students can take action to make a difference with their insights of the world, their understanding of different perspectives, and their effective communication of their ideas.

What does MPA mean to you? Why have you made it a key part of your life?

MPA means community and family to me. It means “see the world.” I live in Naperville, which gives me a daily commute of at least one hour each way, and I’ve been making that drive for more than 10 years. People often ask what keeps me at MPA, and it is because here, I feel I am welcomed, valued, respected, and supported. It is because at MPA, I can meet people not only from different backgrounds, cultures, countries, and beliefs, but also can go out to see the world with students and colleagues every year.

What do you like best about working at MPA?

My favorite thing about our school is the inclusive and international-oriented culture, which shows up not only in daily classroom instruction but during Project Week (or Global Week, in Lower School and Middle School).

This whole-school, annual event is not an optional or on-and-off extra school activities. It is an energetic component of MPA curriculum mandatory for all students and faculty. After not having Project Week trips in 2020 or 2021, we resumed our U.S. domestic travel in 2022 and our international travel in 2023. The consistent belief in and appreciation of global Education makes MPA stand out among both public and independent schools in this area.

I also deeply value the MPA community. This is a small school. We know each other and we stay close as a community. My colleagues are not only my workmates but also my friends. We support each other both professionally and personally in everyday life. Our school leaders trust me as a professional as well as respect me as a valuable teammate. We also have caring parents and families here. Research shows that a family’s involvement in school has significant impact on the student’s achievement. Here, everybody in the school community believes in the MPA Way: “Be kind and do your best!”

What do you enjoy most about teaching?

Working with young people! They are young, so they are energetic, ever-changing, creative, adventurous, pure, and innocent. Being with them makes me feel young and every day is different.

Also, they are people. When I was in graduate school, studying very hard to get my Ph.D. degree, mostly I worked with books, data, and computers. However, I found myself enjoying more working with people. They are different, vivid, warm, and uncontrollable “variables.” Most importantly, they have feelings.

In my teaching career, I have been immersed in all kinds of warm emotions expressed by my students, which made my heart melt. Through those moments, I was constantly reminded that teaching is not just any job. It is special in that I am dealing with people, not some documents, data, or computers, but young people full of feelings.

As a world language teacher, I have the luxury of having some students in class for years. Some of them are in my classes for six years, if we start together in seventh grade. Such a long-term relationship allows us to build mutual trust over time. I witness their happiness as well as their growing pains during their teenage years, “the flower season” in a person’s life.

Such a long-term relationship built up during a crucial time of a person’s life, on one side, is the enjoyment of my teaching career; on the other side, makes me feel the seriousness and responsibilities as a teacher. When they graduate, they leave me all the beautiful memories over years with their trust, their respect, and their love. This is why I love teaching, and this is my rewarding time.

What motivated you to become a teacher?

I grew up in a family of teachers, and we lived on a university campus during my childhood. Most of my family members are teachers at different levels of education. A school environment always makes me feel safe and comfortable.

When I was little, I remember there was a big mobile blackboard at my grandpa’s house with boxes of old-fashioned chalk. My grandpa, my father, and my aunts used it to prepare their lessons. The rest of the time, that blackboard was the best toy for the children in my family. I loved role-playing as a teacher and students with my cousins and friends.

I don’t know what would be a better career for me other than being a teacher. It just runs in the family blood.