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Young Volunteer Teaches Opening Paths and Minds

Since 1999, The University of Science and Technology of China has been sending new graduates to poverty-stricken areas in the west, Zhu Lixin reports.

China's education system has progressed tremendously over the decades, with many residents able to attend a school of higher education with ease.

But in poverty-stricken areas, especially in western China, the development of education is still being hindered by poor infrastructure and a shortage of good teachers.

One institute that is looking to create advancements in rural education is the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, Anhui province. For more than a decade, it has been sending volunteer teachers to poverty-stricken areas.

Liu Xuan, who graduated from USTC this summer, didn't look for a job after graduation. Instead, he chose to volunteer as a teacher at a middle school in Northwest China's Ningxia Hui autonomous region.

"Compared with East China, which is more developed, the students here live in tough conditions," said Liu, who explained that western China's education system needs a great deal of assistance.

Liu, 24, is one of 111 volunteers USTC has sent to Ningxia and Qinghai province since 1999. All of the students participated in the program after completing their undergraduate studies.

Liu graduated from USTC's geophysics department and currently teaches computer courses to students at the No 3 Middle School in Haiyuan county.

Yang Feng, 38, taught English in a school in Ningxia's Haiyuan county from 2000 to 2001. He said he remembers the children's reaction when he first taught them the English word for "lake".

"Most of them could not understand this word since it is rather dry there and they had never seen a lake," said Yang, currently the vice-president of USTC's school of management. "There are many things the children have never seen but are enormously interested in."

Liu said he wants "to let the children know more about the world, let them know there are so many things they may want to try out, and that they have to study very hard for better chances in the future".

Once a referee for his university's soccer association, Liu also teaches soccer to his students after class.

"Not just how to kick the ball, but more importantly, the rules, which had never been taught before," he said.

Three years ago, the work of USTC volunteers like Liu was praised by Premier Li Keqiang.

"I am glad to see young volunteers teach in the west with their knowledge and sense of responsibility. What they have done is not only passing on knowledge, but also opening a door for the children to see the outside world," said Li, then vice-premier, in a letter to USTC volunteers in 2012.

"The volunteers have been playing important roles in lightening the children's hopes and dreams," Li said in his letter.

The letter came as a response to his visit to the university in July 2011, when he came across the university's 13th batch of volunteers heading for Ningxia. The team of eight were kicking off their journey with a brief ceremony on campus. The then vice-premier also wrote a note for the volunteers: "Serve the society with volunteering work."

Meaningful work

Besides teaching assigned courses, Liu and his fellow volunteers also visit the students' homes over the weekend.

"The purpose of the home visits is to find the households that need financial help from my alma mater," Liu said.

Though Liu knows what he is doing is meaningful, he is not sure what kind of influence his work will have on the students.

But perhaps Wang Mei could provide Liu some insight.

Wang, 22, was one of the beneficiaries of the program nine years ago. Now a student at North China University of Water Resources and Electric Power, she was taught by Xu Yan, one of the pioneer volunteers.

"The volunteers have opened a window through which we see the world," Wang said. "It was the young volunteers who brought us vigor and vitality."

Wang said she had long dreamed of leaving her hometown to see the outside world, but didn't know how to make it happen.

"It was the volunteer teacher who made me realize that the most practical way is studying hard," she said.

Other former students taught by the volunteers have since become teachers.

Ma Jing, 28, works in a local middle school in Zhongwei, Ningxia, as an English teacher.

"It was the volunteers that made me think that being a teacher is glorious, so I chose to study in education when I entered a local college nine years ago and realized my dream in 2010," said Ma.

Liu Xuan said he would like to go back to USTC for further studies after his volunteering work is over.

"I believe the experience will have a lasting influence on my life," he said.

What They Say

What they say

"The one-year experience was short, but what it taught me was profound. It was from the experience that I realized the importance of combining personal values with the values of society."

Wu Maoqian, entrepreneur, head of the USTC volunteers team from 2011-2012

What they say

"There are too many things that the children have never seen but are enormously interested in. What we young volunteers do is bring the outside world to them and inspire them to learn more through their own efforts."

Liu Xuan, USTC volunteer who currently teaches at the No 3 Middle School in Haiyuan county

What they say

"When I was teaching from 2006 to 2007 at the No 3 Middle School in Haiyuan, only a small number of them could get into college because of poor education conditions and also their difficult financial status."

Xu Yan, volunteer teacher in Ningxia from 2006 to 2007

What they say

The volunteers like Xu Yan have opened a window through which we see the world. It was the young volunteers who brought us vigor and vitality."

Wang Mei, college student and former rural student benefiting from the USTC volunteer program

What they say

"It was the volunteers that made me think that being a teacher is glorious, so I choose to study in education when I entered into a local college nine years ago and realized my dream in 2010."

Ma Jing, English teacher in Zhongwei, Ningxia, and former rural student benefiting from the USTC volunteer program