Jeff wearing a graduation cap and gown, holding flowers, and standing in front of a UC Davis sign.

Enrichment and Opportunity through Language and Culture Coaching

Looking to expand his horizons, Zhengfeng “Jeff” Lai transferred to the University of California, Davis, from Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, as a senior undergraduate. Once here, Jeff completed his Bachelors in Engineering in 2019 and further pursued a PhD in electrical and computer engineering with a specialization in artificial and machine learning, graduating in 2023. Aspiring to help other students and professors by serving as a Teaching Assistant (TA), he turned to Language and Culture Coaching (LCC) within Global Affairs for help. 

“I wanted to teach students better… I wanted to learn about English beyond the grammar and into the culture and language. LCC helped me with that and more," shared Lai.

Strengthening English Skills

After attending his first LCC event, Lai connected with advisors and other students in the program who helped him practice his English, shared their own TA experiences, and provided teaching and presentation skills. According to Lai, the most valuable part of attending LCC events and advisory meetings was “…just being able to talk to native speakers every week… [the] learning process is not just grammar and sentences, but the culture. I wanted to learn more to help myself relax, which would help the students.” 

Jeff Lai holding a brain as part of a class dissection.
Brain dissection in the Dugger Lab at the UC Davis Alzheimer's Disease Research Center

Lai shared that practicing his PhD defense with LCC advisors was also extremely helpful. It was during these “very technical interviews” that graduate students really learned “how to convey your point clearly and present your research clearly,” but he also emphasized that this process was additionally beneficial for his students because the TA trainees are themselves exposed to what one-on-one student-teacher interactions should look like. After all, learning a language is one thing; learning the social skills to teach in that language is another.  

Besides the academic aspect of LCC, Lai fondly remembered making “lots of friends” at LCC get-togethers who were always up for a good tennis match afterward—where impassioned banter doubly served as even more English practice. That is after all the food was served.

Skills with Lifelong Benefits

Little did Jeff know at the time that his experiences at LCC would prove invaluable in his future professional career as an AI machine learning researcher and developer at Apple. Learning how to teach, how to present, and, importantly, how to socialize in English were all crucial “to the many achievements I have been able to make… Without their [LCC] help, I’d be super nervous. They helped me get my degree, my TA-ship, and ultimately helped me get this job.” 

Lai also received several awards while at UC Davis: the 2024 College of Engineering Award for “Excellence in Graduate Student Research,” the 2024 Anil Jain Memorial Award for his contributions to the field of signal processing and computer vision, and the 2022 Smita Bakshi Digital Learning Teaching Award for his exceptional work as a teaching assistant in the use of technology or development of digital material to improve the curriculum and learning outcomes for students.

Jeff Lai holding flowers and his diploma, standing in front of a large UC Davis Aggies sign.
PhD Graduation Ceremony at UC Davis

When asked what he might say to students interested in LCC, Lai simply remarked:

“Let them help you. Attend their programs as much as you can… once you tell them your goals, they’ll help you.”

Language and Culture Coaching is a program offered by Global Affairs, dedicated to helping multilingual graduate students succeed as Teaching Assistants. Students of all backgrounds, regardless of status, are invited to participate in the program, learn about TA opportunities, and connect with like-minded students. More information can be found on the LCC Website.


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