Hardships help young volunteers learn
Teaching mathematics at a high school in a small and remote western town, 23-year-old Hou Yujing learned something she couldn't have learned elsewhere.
Now a graduate student at Fudan University's journalism school, Hou was one of 59 graduates from Shanghai who volunteered to teach in China's western provinces. Different volunteers were sent to Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Yunnan Province.
Like Hou, most of the volunteers were motivated by a desire to help children in western rural areas.
"I also hoped to learn more about my country and forge a strong will," she said.
When the one-year placement came to an end last June, she found the year worthwhile, even if not all her initial goals were achieved.
Hou was sent to Xinying Middle school, the only middle school in Ningxia's Xiji County.
The extremely poor natural conditions there have pushed the United Nations to classify it as unfit for human habitation.
But what impressed Hou most was not the hard living conditions, but the poor quality of education children received.
Being a journalism student herself, she was assigned to teach two math classes, because there were no other teachers available.
At first, she was very nervous and upset.
"But I soon found out I am a good enough mathematics teacher for my students," she said.
"The knowledge my students attained is far behind their counterparts in big cities in Eastern China."
She concedes that one-year placements are too short to make any great changes.
"Nevertheless, I believe we still made our contribution because we helped improve the local education and bring hope and the outside world to the students," she added.
Fudan University has sent five groups of 29 students to Xiji Country since 1999.
According to Qin Shaode, the university's party secretary, Fudan will continue to send volunteer teachers there.
Hou agreed. She said volunteers want to be sent to where they are most needed, particularly remote villages short of qualified teachers.
"One year isn't too long for volunteers, but to the local students it means a lot," she said.
For Shanghai-based universities like Fudan, sending students to teach for short periods in poverty-stricken western areas is another form of education.
"The volunteers have to learn to adapt to local environments and overcome hardships that are impossible to encounter in Shanghai,'' said Zhou Ye, deputy secretary of Youth League at Fudan University.
As an incentive, the volunteers are admitted to graduate schools without any examinations when they come back from their mission.
"But most of the volunteers are actually qualified to attend graduate school even if they don't volunteer," he said.
He added that these students share one thing in common: they believe happiness comes from devotion.
He said the qualifications to go to graduate school and strong spirit of devotion are two requirements the school sets for volunteers.
"Some may say I wasted one year in that poor small town, but I don't regret it," Hou said.
"The experience will benefit me for the rest of my life. If I am given the opportunity to teach in a similar school again, I will definitely go."