Shaping minds

Updated: 2011-03-15 07:55

By Zhang Yuwei (China Daily)

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 Shaping minds
Harvard graduate Ken Saathoff with three of his Chinese students in Yunnan province. [Provided to China Daily]

The China Education Initiative offers fellowships to young American and Chinese graduates from top universities to serve in low-income communities in the Chinese countryside, in a bid to bridge educational inequalities. Zhang Yuwei reports from New York.

In July 2009, 21-year-old Ken Saathoff packed his bags and flew to China's southwestern Yunnan province to become a teaching fellow. Saathoff, from Virginia, had graduated with a bachelor's degree in English and American language and literature from Harvard University that year. A month after graduation, he was selected as a fellow for China Education Initiative, or CEI.

"I was always looking for an opportunity like this," says Saathoff, one of 20 fellows (evenly divided between Americans and Chinese) of CEI's inaugural fellowship in 2009.

Based in Beijing, CEI was founded in 2008 by Andrea Pasinetti, a 25-year-old graduate of Princeton University. CEI is the only non-profit organization to pair outstanding young graduates from top universities in the United States and China to serve in a long-term teaching initiative in low-income communities in China.

While at Princeton, Pasinetti focused on education in China's rural-reform policies and the New Socialist Countryside Campaign - a campaign introduced by the Chinese government in 2006 to help farmers overcome their problems.

For his thesis, Pasinetti visited and spent time in underprivileged communities in rural China. That's when he realized how urgent the need for a teaching force was in rural China.

"I remember every time I walked into a school in those rural areas, I saw a slogan - knowledge is the key to a better life," recalls Pasinetti, adding there is a significant discrepancy between education for children in rural and urban areas in China.

It was then that he thought of setting up an initiative that could bring the Teach For America model to rural China and help end educational inequality.

Teach For America, founded in 1990, is an American non-profit organization that aims to eliminate educational inequity by recruiting young graduates to teach for two or more years in low-income communities throughout the United States.

Pasinetti worked with the Yunnan government and started developing CEI and pitched it to Teach For All - Teach For America's international arm that currently has partnerships with 18 countries, including China, Brazil, Germany, Latvia, India, Lebanon and the United Kingdom.

Amy Black, vice president for Growth Strategy and Development at Teach For All, says that in the coming nine months, the network will expand to about 25 countries, completely led by the local team.

"Local adaptation is critical. We don't initiate the growth. We want to partner with countries to take their vision forward by using our model," Black says.

Currently, CEI has a presence in 20 schools (mostly middle schools) in Yunnan. Since its establishment in 2008, the number of teachers has been growing rapidly, from the inaugural year's 20 to the current 60.

"We are going to have 200 fellows on the ground next year (2012)," says Pasinetti, adding CEI is looking into expanding to other provinces in northern China.

Wendy Kopp, CEO and founder of Teach For America/All, says she was impressed by the zeal demonstrated by the teachers and students when she visited China in December, 2010.

"I really saw the same kind of approach (of Teach For America) that seems to differentiate the most successful teachers in other countries," Kopp says.

Saathoff taught 44 eighth graders English (a compulsory subject for seventh graders in China) and music at Liuhe Middle School, in rural Heqing county, in northwestern Yunnan.

Yunnan, located in southwest China and surrounded by mountains, is home to 25 of China's 56 ethnic groups, including the Yi, Bai, Miao, Hui, and Tai ethnic groups.

The province is also one of the nation's most economically disadvantaged ones. Since the 1960s, improvements have been achieved in overall educational levels, and there has also been an increase in the average number of years of regular education received.

Despite the progress, the illiteracy rate in Yunnan remains one of the highest in China and this is attributed mainly due to low educational levels among the ethnic minorities who account for 38 percent of the population.

Saathoff says his hardworking students are his motivation to keep going in Yunnan. He says he has never regretted or had any doubts about his decision to take up the fellowship.

"Their optimism and hard work really move me," he says, adding some of his students have to walk for about eight hours to get to school.

"Every day when I wake up in the morning, and when I go to bed at night, I know why I am here. If I don't do a good job, I will be failing my students, and if I do a good job, it will really make a difference in their lives."

Of the students at the school where Saathoff teaches, only 30 percent score high enough to enter high school every year. But he says this doesn't discourage the students whose parents are mostly rice farmers.

"They are curious about everything and are very respectful. Their life is very hard, but they are always cheerful and seek opportunities to do different things," he says.

Liu Lingqing, 14, is full of gratitude for her American teacher Saathoff (or Mr Xia - the Chinese name given by his students).

"I am so glad Mr Xia came to teach us English in rural China. With his patience and help and our hard work, my English will improve," says Liu, whose dream is to visit the US, and Hollywood, one day.

Saathoff has no Chinese language skills but before coming to Yunnan he always thought his biggest challenge would be living in a rural area without much access to public transportation and the daily comforts of city life.

To his surprise, all these were easy to overcome. The real challenge turned out to be communicating with his students and locals.

"At first, my eighth graders couldn't understand anything I was saying in English."

He then started learning Chinese online through Skype from teachers based in Beijing. He says his dorm on the school campus (where the fellows live) has the best Internet connection he has ever used.

Saathoff enjoys his life outside of the classroom. "Even though we cannot communicate, it has completely changed my idea of what it means to be with people and get to know them. We just sit together, sing a song, drink tea and eat guazi (melon seeds - a typical Chinese snack)."

Saathoff's Yunnan experience has also given him a chance to see a different side of China, not just the big cities like Beijing or Shanghai.

Although Saathoff comes from a culture that has taught him to be independent, living in China, he says, has taught him how to rely on others.

"It is also important to learn to rely on other people. It was initially difficult but interesting," he says.

CEI makes it possible for young American graduates like Saathoff to have a China experience that is recognized by Americans.

In May, 2010, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton launched the "100,000 Strong" Initiative which seeks to promote mutual understanding through student exchanges and aspires to send 100,000 American students to study in China over the next four years.

Sarabeth Berman, director of US Recruiting and University Relations, says she has seen an increasing number of American students showing interest in the CEI program.

"A lot of American students are learning Chinese and many of them are deeply interested in China. They are eager to learn about China, Chinese and want to make an impact," says Berman who traveled to about 40 universities in the US in 2011 to meet and recruit potential CEI fellows.

All American fellows are paid the same as the Chinese fellows, with the money coming from sponsors of CEI such as Ford Foundation, Goldman Sachs and the provincial governments where the fellows are teaching, Berman says.

"In terms of the salary, while it's true I could have been making more money in America, I think an important part of the experience is living like the locals. The local teacher salary enables you to cover your needs, and it helps you to integrate more into your community than would be possible if your salary was much higher than your coworkers," Saathoff says.

After finishing the one-year fellowship (which now runs for two years) with CEI, Saathoff decided to stay on with the team as part of the support staff and help develop and improve the teaching system in Lincang, Yunnan.

"I wouldn't say I am satisfied with my job at CEI because I don't think I am done yet - there is so much for me to do. I want to keep it up," he says, reciting an ancient Chinese poem in perfect Mandarin - "If you want to see further, you need to reach a higher level."


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