Less than 30 percent of poor rural students in China make it to high school. About 600,000 drop out each year. Only 5 percent make it to college. The statistics for girls are even worse. (Check out the average years students go to school in different countries)
So it shouldn’t make sense that my 18-year-old friend Selina and her parents are so anxious that she has graduated from high school with a decent college entrance score.
It wouldn’t make sense, except for the fact that her family lives in a small mountain village in Yunnan Province, farming their land for food and making little money. If Selina goes to college, her parents will both go out to become laborers, making little more than $300 US dollars a month to pay for her schooling. Selina and her parents know that she has “made” it by being the first in their family to go to high school, let alone college. But the horrifying reality of seeing her 48-year-old parents toil as day laborers and taking on loans makes Selina’s stomach turn.
I met Selina when I was managing Teach For China’s summer training for new teachers last year in the small town of Changning, Yunnan Province. We bonded over the fact that she wants to improve her English, become a doctor and return to her village to serve the community. She was outgoing, sought out my phone number and gave me a beautiful hair clip before I left town.
We stayed in touch throughout the past year through text and voice messages, with her updating me about how nervous she was for the gao-kao - China’s SATs on steroids that are the only way of getting into college. She described being in class until 11 pm each night while reminding me to get more rest and not work so much. In turn, I would send pictures to her of different towns and schools I visited for my work in China, ask her about her big dreams and encourage her to work hard and have fun when she could.
But this week, our conversations changed. Selina shared how she wasn’t sure about being a doctor anymore because it would mean 5 years of college instead of 4 - a whole year of hard labor and more debt for her family. She also expressed her anxiety about going to college at all because of the costs. This is when I remembered what it means to truly be a mentor.
I don’t have much money, connections or experience out there in the world, especially in China, but the reality is, I have far more than Selina. And as an advocate, mentor and friend, she can have all I’ve got.
When this dawned on me this morning, I introduced her to one friend who knows about scholarships and loans in China. I’m connecting her to another friend who also grew up in rural Yunnan, struggled through college and is doing inspiring work in education. And I can have her talk to another person who studied medicine to see if that’s really what she wants. I’ll keep reminding her to work hard, be a good person and to have fun. And at the end of the day, if it’s money that’s in the way between her and her dreams, then I am sure I can hustle that too.
I am no longer a classroom teacher and am no longer even in China. I don’t have much money or friends in high places. I work long hours and have an erratic travel schedule. But after seeing the power of mentorship for both me, my brother and countless resilient young adults I’ve met over the years, I know it takes a village. So as we creep into the start of a new school year, please reach out to a local organization by you and apply to be a mentor. No one is too busy to be a part of that village and take a stand for everything a child wants to be.
Have a favorite mentoring program? Or another way you take part in children’s lives in and out of the classroom? Please share!
Photo by Jessica Shyu
The opinions expressed in Lessons From China are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.