Her name is Mary. She is only 19 years old but already she has many grey hairs. On Thursday mornings in my freshmen oral English class, she always sits alone in the back of the room. No one ever talks to her; she appears to have no friends. Whenever she speaks, the disdainful expressions I detect on the faces of other students betray their true feelings about her.
She is different from the rest.
“I come from a very poor family in the countryside,” Mary candidly shared with the class during a biographical ESL activity. While she is well dressed and healthy, her face displays a hardness and maturity which stands in contrast to the other youthful faces in the room. Her family has clearly experienced some hard times.
Mary may not be one of my most popular students but she certainly stands out as one of the brightest. When I observe her during class, I can sense her eagerness to learn the English language. Not only is she constantly making eye contact with me, she writes down every word I say. She seems to treasure every opportunity to speak in class even though her pronunciation is quite poor.
In my estimation, she is a student who wants to get the most out of her experience at the university.
“What do your parents do for a job?” I asked Mary recently after class.
“Both of them are farmers,” she replied. “We are peasants.” She made this statement very matter-of-factly and was clearly not ashamed of her family status. When I asked her how far from school her parents lived, she informed me her hometown was just 4 hours away.
“How often do you see your family?” I asked.
“Not very often,” was the reply. “It’s too far away.” Actually, for other students, 4 hours would not be a long trip at all. Some could easily get back on the weekend and return in time for classes on Monday morning. For Mary, however, the cost of a 4-hour train ride could very well be a strain on her parent’s budget.
Most likely, Mary and her parents do not have to worry about paying for the bulk of her tuition. In recent years, the Chinese government has offered much more financial assistance to those in need in the form of loans and scholarships.
Like many other good intentions Beijing has, however, the money does not always get to the students.
“Recently, the chancellor at my university was fired for stealing money from a scholarship fund,” a teacher friend told me this week. “If they aren’t stolen then sometimes they are used for students who really don’t need them.” The school – not the government – decides where the money should go and how it should be spent.
Taking out student loans, which is becoming increasingly popular in China, is still frowned upon by many in the older generation.
“Chinese people pay for something only if they have the cash,” a student stated to me in a recent English corner. “We are good at saving money.”
No matter how Mary got the chance to attend University, at least she is here. Many of her classmates in the middle school probably did not have the same opportunity and may never leave the countryside. She is lucky.
If her parents do support her university education even a little bit, they are most likely making some big sacrifices. A yearly income of less than 10,000 RMB is still common in China, especially in the outlying areas. It is certainly not unheard of for a Chinese parent to take on an extra job while a child is studying.
I believe my student Mary will do well in the university because she is grateful to be here. Hopefully, she can find a decent job after she has graduated and help bring her family out of poverty and into a better way of living. I certainly hope so. She – and the millions of others like her – certainly deserve that chance.