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Bringing China's economic boom to rural students left behind

A program sends students from top Chinese universities into impoverished areas to coach poorly educated students, hoping to give them a stake in China's future.

By Jonathan S. LandrethContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / September 8, 2009

Sun Liyuan: The Tsingua University junior speaks with an ethnic Hui farmer in Ledu. Ms. Sun was ambivalent about teaching English at a rural school, but now she says she is passionate about it.

Jonathan S. Landreth


Ledu, China

Sun Liyuan surprised herself with her passion for teaching English as a volunteer in northwest China's impoverished Qinghai Province, not far from where she grew up as the daughter of a rural schoolmaster.

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The Tsinghua University junior was initially ambivalent about the program that her school, one of the top universities in China, had set up to help educate farmers bypassed by China's 30-year economic boom.

But Ms. Sun soon postponed preparations for the Graduate Record Exam she'd planned to take in order to study in the United States. The chemical engineering major liked the idea of giving back.

Sun joined the fourth year of the Summer Service Learning Program that – with support from the Wang Foundation of Pebble Beach, Calif. – sends 150 of Tsinghua's brightest to rural China to share the skills they used to escape poverty.

For 10 days in July, Sun and four classmates went to Ledu, a town of 20,000 on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau. Most of the 1,400 students at Ledu Experimental High School board in cement-floored dormitories. Their families grow barley and herd goats in the nearby mountains.

Seeing the scruffy teens in blue-and-white track suits, Sun came face to face with her past – a place where incomes average $475 a year and rote teaching crushes imagination. The experiment in Ledu, Sun hoped, would offer these students a chance to meet role models who'd stuck to their dreams.

"The most important thing is to raise their confidence," says Sun, wearing a Tsinghua "Yes We Can" T-shirt that nods to a popular US election campaign refrain. "If I can show them that I'm from a place like this, too, then they can know they could make a success."

Overcoming the English hurdle

Alongside Chinese and math, English is a major feature of China's college-­entrance exam, the gao kao. By the ti­me they finish at Ledu Experimental, students will have studied English for three to 10 years. But with a lack of strong rural primary schoolteachers, especially in English, the Ledu Experimental kids average only 50 out of a possible 150 points on that portion of the gao kao.

Preliminary data show that 3,014 students took the gao kao inLedu County in 2009 and 85 percent passed it. At Ledu Experimental, however, teachers said even the highest English scores were below 100, and only 20 percent of the youths would go to college, held back by the need for farmhands and a failure to understand what English-language skills could offer.