Born to a small Chinese village two thousand miles away from Beijing, my father traveled to the nation's capital in the spring of 1978 and toured the city for the very first time.
Eighteen years old, he had been deprived of the opportunity for normal schooling thanks to the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution that had engulfed the nation in the preceding decade, and he had no idea what was to come into his life.
By chance, he came upon the campus of Tsinghua University, one of China's top universities, and was enraptured by what he witnessed: people conversing with each other in foreign tongues and students quietly enjoying their readings on the lawn. At each corner of the campus he was able to find an authentic ambience of learning.
He then snuck into a lecture hall, and despite not understanding most of what the professor was saying, he was impressed by the old scholar's calm confidence, mild humor and above all, the air of dedication to the pursuit of knowledge and truth that the professor was able to conjure up on the podium. Returning to his hometown, he quickly dropped the family's plan for him to apprentice for a local watchmaker and spent the next two years studying for the college entrance exam, a career choice that was considered sheer madness by his family and friends. To this day, my father credits the day he visited Tsinghua as the turning point of his life, and attributes his life's successes to the inspiration he drew from that visit.
This is the story that my father has recounted to me many times, and it was the story I bore in mind when I decided to sign up for the volunteer program sponsored by the Commerce, Organizations and Entrepreneurship program. The volunteering program brings students from Hope High School in Providence to experience college life at Brown for one day.
Hope High is a public school that seems to have suffered all the problems that plague American public schools. It is in an East Side neighborhood and has been historically abandoned by the middle class, who prefer to send their children elsewhere. The student body is made up predominantly of ethnic minorities. The school is handicapped by structure and lack of funding to improve its performance. Despite state authorities' efforts to reform the administrative structures and to aggregate financial investment for the school, test scores at Hope are extremely low, and not so long ago, the dropout rate was 56 percent.
There are already many initiatives taken by our fellow Brown students to help kids at Hope High School, but I was particularly intrigued by the promise of the COE volunteering program and signed up for it believing that, just like my father's trip to Beijing, one day of an authentic Brown experience might prove truly transformative and inspiring for high school kids who may otherwise choose to forgo college education altogether.
Existing programs on campus are indeed abundant and valuable, and usually enlist Brown students' help in improving the academic performance of the students at Hope High School. These range from SAT preparation to debate team coaching. Still, the role we have in tutoring high school students seems limited.
One thing that those eager to help need to realize is that most Hope students have grown up in underprivileged families and minority neighborhoods, which is to say they grow up in a world distinctly different from the "Brown bubble," an elitist circle. Some of the Brown volunteers actually commit several afternoons each week to walking a few blocks over to Hope High School to tutor those children in SAT verbal tactics, yet most of tutees remain blind to what college life is all about. Even with higher test scores, Hope students still live in an environment of abject poverty, frequent violence and depressing morale. Bringing those students over to Brown, even for one day, to truly savor college life in its entirety and authenticity — in Brown's libraries and seminar rooms — may have a more profound and lasting influence on the psyches of those kids.
At Brown we always readily extend a helping hand to the struggling kids in our neighboring communities. Compared with the academic tutoring services we bring to Hope students, the COE volunteering program suggests another possible way to help them: What is more important than Brown University reaching out to the community is perhaps bringing in the local children and stirring aspirations to great education and great expectations. It is for this reason that I would urge you to volunteer to couple with a Hope High student for one day. Bring them to classes and other campus venues you visit. Share your day at Brown with one of those students, for the sake of inspiration and hope.
Yue Wang '12 is a political science and German studies concentrator from Shanghai. She can be reached at yue_wang at brown.edu.