SF State psychology graduate student earns top CSU honor

Cheng Yu poses in front of greenery

Cheng Yu named the 2019 CSU Trustee Emeritus Ali C. Razi Scholar

Growing up deaf and gay in China, a country in which both of those groups are marginalized, San Francisco State University graduate student Cheng Yu endured periods when he didn’t have any hope for his future. Today, the SF State graduate student is applying to Ph.D. programs and is being recognized as the 2019 Trustee Emeritus Ali C. Razi Scholar by the California State University (CSU), the highest honor among the 23 Trustees’ Awards given each year by the CSU.

“It doesn’t matter how many challenges and how many hardships you face,” Yu said. “You can’t give up. When you don’t give up, you still get a chance to do something more.”

In his childhood, Yu was discriminated against for his deafness and later was forced into abusive conversion therapy when he told others about his sexual identity. Upon leaving the clinic, he dedicated himself to leaving China as well, studying English and applying to universities in the U.S. He went on to earn a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Oregon, becoming the first in his family to go to college. His choice of major was informed by his own experiences with discrimination and a desire to try to understand why humans make the decisions they do.

At San Francisco State, Yu is a graduate researcher in the lab of Associate Professor of Psychology Charlotte Tate. He studies a field called “social vision,” which deals with how we perceive others based on nonverbal cues like hand gestures and facial expressions. Such nonverbal cues are particularly important for deaf people, who by necessity rely heavily on visual information, he says.

For his master’s research, Yu is developing a scale for measuring how study participants interpret their own mannerisms in the context of their gender identity. One goal of the work, he says, is to help bridge the gap between groups that may be prone to misunderstanding one another. “If you don’t understand me, you’ll be scared of me,” Yu explained. “By studying this field of LGBTQ people, I can help people to understand us more.” He plans on becoming a professor in the field of social psychology and also hopes to start an international nonprofit that will provide support for gay men in China.

Yu says the CSU award will allow him to focus on his studies, his research and applying for Ph.D. programs. Along with the other award recipients, he will be honored at a meeting of the CSU Board of Trustees on Sept. 24.

“These 23 student scholars wonderfully embody the ideals and values of the California State University,” said CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White. “They have demonstrated brilliance, tenacity and extraordinary resolve in overcoming many obstacles in the pursuit of their academic goals. It is inspiring to consider the collective future impact they will have on their families, communities and the state of California.”