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The Interview: Shelly Wang

Researching career trends and expanding educational opportunities beyond the traditional college experience are among her goals.

People  |  Nov 26, 2018  |  By Juliet V. Casey
Shelly Wang the director of program development for Continuing Education poses in front of flowers.

Shelly Wang, director of program development for Continuing Education. (Lonnie Timmons III/UNLV Creative Services)    

Finding out that Las Vegas was just like any other American city was a surprise to recent transplant Shelly Wang, UNLV’s director of program development in the Division of Educational Outreach. And she can’t believe her commute to work only takes 20 minutes.

Why UNLV?

Las Vegas boasts incredible demographic diversity. I was drawn initially to this place because my entire career has been about creating equity and enhancing access within education. For me, coming into an environment where diversity is a given is a unique opportunity. I have lived in other places that are thought to foster a lot of diversity, like Los Angeles, Orange County (California), Manhattan (New York City) … Those places are definitely diverse, but here in Las Vegas, aside from the racial and ethnic diversity, there is a broad diversity in experience — newly arrived immigrants, first-generation students, multiple generations seeking higher or continuing education at all levels of their careers.

What did you do previously?

I started out in a policy think tank. I thought I would be happy doing research analysis. I learned a lot, but I actually felt frustrated and powerless. I wanted to have a more direct impact. So, I went to work for nonprofits. I was at Teach for America for a few years, where I could work closely with students and teachers as they faced all kinds of educational challenges routinely. Then, I had the opportunity to work with the University Extended Education Office at Cal State Fullerton. That’s where I saw first hand how the university can play a role in shaping the lives of both matriculated students and students who are considered non-traditional. I worked there for 12 years.

Your job duties

I am charged with developing programs that are industry-relevant for professional development. Most of the students we are hoping to help are those who might already have full-time jobs and/or a degree of some sort but who are looking to grow in their careers or change gears.

An "a-ha!" moment

That came from my experience in college when I was an intern at an elementary school, and I had a great relationship with the students. This was in Oakland (California) in a district where they had a 25 percent high school graduation rate. A few years ago, I was contacted on social media by someone I didn’t recognize. It was one of my students from way back then – 18 years ago! He graduated high school and got into college and was in his fourth year about to graduate. He remembered me because, as he said, it mattered to him I cared enough to help him as a kid. The challenge after his four years in college was in establishing himself without having the social capital that his more affluent peers had. This was my “a-ha!” moment. As educators, our work never ends. Lifelong education continues beyond formal degrees, and it is a critical part of defining student success.

The inspiration to get into your field

I came from a family of educators, and drew inspiration from what my parents and grandparents did for their students in Taiwan. Also, as a sociology major, I learned how education could lead positive social change… everything was pointing me toward education.

The biggest challenge in your field

The continual challenge is to overcome the perception that continuing education offers the “fun” classes like basket weaving and nothing else. Although we do offer many personal enrichment classes, continuing education is also very much about professional development, constant renewal, and growth.

What is the biggest misconception you encounter about UNLV and how does your role help shine a light on what UNLV is really like?

I should confess that until recently, I had been an outsider with a great deal of misconception about UNLV, mostly related to its location and the population I assumed it served. I thought it was a commuter school, where school spirit and identification are not very strong. Now, having been here a few months, I would argue otherwise. I see my own role as dispelling this perception, so UNLV is the first place people go whenever they have a need for education.

Where you grew up

I grew up in Taipei, Taiwan, until I was 12. It was a metropolis, but largely hegemonic. Then, my family and I moved to Cerritos, California. It was hard leaving my friends and social group, then suddenly moving to a place where I had to deal with a completely new life in a place where there was discrimination. That was something I never encountered before, and it really shaped my thinking about education and opportunity. It was for education and opportunity that my parents brought us to the U.S.

Pastime or hobbies

My new hobby – hammock yoga. But I also love doing nothing on a Sunday and just laying on my sofa with a great book. I am re-reading When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.

Something people would be surprised to learn about you

While I will never be a professional dancer, I did ballet on a regular basis for 20 years. I have screwed up feet to prove it. I can still do fouettes – just three, though.