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Alumni Spotlight - Steven Zhao ('15)


Current City: Fairfax, VA

Hometown: Moraga, CA

Graduation Year: 2015

Major: Psychology

Occupation: PhD Research & Teaching Assistant

Organization: George Mason University

Who influenced you most during your time at Pepperdine? The faculty and staff were exceptional. Largely because of the small school environment, I was lucky to be closely mentored by several faculty and staff who were instrumental in helping me discern what I wanted my next steps to be and where God was leading me. If it wasn't for their guidance, I probably wouldn't have the knowledge, connections, and experience that I needed to get to where I am now.

Share your best college memory: For the last two years, we held a two-week all-campus humans versus zombies game, partnering with the various student ministries on campus (Campus Ministry, student-led ministries, HRL, etc.). It was great fun - and we even made sure that the rules didn't allow disruptions to classes. You can still find our promo video and rules video on Youtube!

What is the most important thing you learned while at Pepperdine? Critical thinking - and I'm still learning it. After I graduated, I worked in HR and data analytics for a couple years before coming to George Mason for my PhD. Honestly, my education at Pepperdine wasn't about the technical skills (e.g., R, Tableau, etc... all of that I learned on the job). Instead, it was about understanding how to critically evaluate different perspectives, being open to all viewpoints, listening to and judging based on empirical evidence, and forming persuasive arguments. These are the skills critical for success in the workforce that you learn best at college. You can always take an online class in machine learning, but it's much harder to develop critical thinking in an asynchronous online classroom.


What advice do you have for current students who want to make the most out of their experience at Pepperdine? Ask for help and for opportunities! There are plenty of ways to get involved at Pepperdine and get experience in the areas that you are interested in. But often times, these opportunities aren't widely publicized. Ask for help, ask faculty and staff for connections, and be proactive. Most of the opportunities that I've been blessed with came out of conversations I've had, often casual ones, rather than formal positions.

Describe your career path. After I graduated with my BA in organizational psychology, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do - go to grad school, find a HR related job, go into ministry? I ended up through a chain of events staying at Pepperdine to do a MA in religion while interning in the Student Affairs office assisting with student leadership development. This was a life-changer for me, as it got me invested into academic research and teaching, and especially student development. After the MA, I took a couple of years to get some "real world" work experience in HR and data analytics, then I came out here to George Mason to pursue my PhD in industrial-organizational psychology. At Mason, my research and teaching focuses on leadership development, motivation, and psychological statistics.

When you give back to Pepperdine, which fund do you choose to support and why? My wife, Ruth (BA, 2017), and I are fortunate enough to be able to support a small endowed scholarship at Pepperdine. If anyone is able to take this path in giving back, I highly recommend it, as it allows you to set up a fund that will continually give back to students year after year (rather than just a one-time gift).