From the click-clacks of a table tennis ball ricocheting off the paddle and onto the table, to the click-clacking of the computer keyboard developing programming, Dr. Yukong Zhang is sharing his love for both table tennis and computer science with his students.
Zhang, professor of computer science, plays competitive table tennis at Texas Wesleyan, often competing against his own students. His office even displays several trophies he’s won over the years.
“I play seriously with my students, and sometimes they are better than me,” he laughed.
Zhang also often clicks the shutter button on his camera as a photographer for the sport. He’s been invited to several tournaments throughout the state to take photos, which he says he loves because he gets to watch the players up close.
“I have the opportunity to get closer, and I love watching table tennis,” he said. “Not everyone gets to do that.”
By teaching at Texas Wesleyan, he’s been able to get more involved in table tennis and interact with students outside the classroom — but he didn’t play table tennis until about 10 years ago and originally didn't have plans to even become a professor.
“I never thought I was going to be a professor,” he said. “If you spend many, many years in school, and every day doing homework, it gets kind of hard. Sometimes you want a break.”
Zhang grew up in the Inner Mongolia providence of China, which is in the north along the Mongolian-China border. He graduated from Wuhan University with his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. At the time, China had stricter governance over education and the workforce, and he was placed into a job working at a government research institution.
It was there that he learned about computation and simulation, which piqued his interest. He decided to study computer science when he came to the United States for his graduate degrees, wanting to come to the U.S. to gain access to more advanced technologies.
“In the old days, technology in the United States was better than China,” he said. “I think everyone wanted to try and study overseas.”
He mentioned that at the time, many people also looked into coming to the U.S. because they could better afford the education with the scholarships or assistantships they received from American universities.
After finishing his Ph.D. in Louisiana, he worked for an IT consulting firm in Houston before he and his wife eventually moved to Dallas. It was at this time he was persuaded by a friend from his Ph.D. program to look into becoming a professor.
“I said, ‘okay, I’m going to try it.’ And once I got here, I really enjoyed it,” he said. “I can interact with the students and see them making progress, especially with graduation. I see them grow up, and they have found a job. I feel pretty proud.”
Zhang says he loves being able to watch his students grow and help students that may be a little afraid of trying to major in computer science because of the math requirements.
“There’s a lot in programming and mathematics, but because our program’s pretty small, the students can work closely with us. And then gradually, they get better and better,” he said.
He says he also uses table tennis to recruit students for computer science majors.
“Currently, we have a table tennis player in my class that switched from business to computer science. And I say part of the reason is because of me,” he laughed.
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Texas Wesleyan table tennis has won 75 national championships since the program started in 2002. Coach Jasna Rather is a member of the United States National Team since 2000 and has made four trips to the Olympic Games (two with the U.S. and two with the former Yugoslavia Olympic Team). In 1988, she took home the bronze medal for Yugoslavia in Seoul, South Korea.
Get to know more about Dr. Zhang
Dr. Zhang also travels around the world, posting about his experiences and research on his Chinese travel blog.