Most China stories seem to have a similar thread: nothing that you could ever expect but seemingly everything you ever wanted.
In some ways, it’s difficult to grasp that fact that I’m finished with the MID program; graduation and much of this past summer was a hectic and exciting blur. This can be largely owed to the fact that I’ve devoted most of my waking (and I suppose even some of my sleeping) moments to the organization, Bridging Education And Mobility | 学愿桥. BEAM’s vision is to see everyone invested in education equity. To achieve that, we are building an online-based platform for educators and the public to personally connect and address the resource gap, together.
Most of my MID 2012 classmates are rather tired of hearing me discuss BEAM (ever the woe of the entrepreneur), particularly because they were some of the first ones at Tsinghua to hear about it. MID will always had a special place in BEAM’s history. It was after a presentation in Professor Cheng Wenhao’s course in the Autumn of 2012 that I decided to join efforts with Irene Shao (an alumnus from my undergrad that I met in Beijing) to build the organization. Emily He, another MID-er, also joined the team in quick succession. (Emily’s experience of founding an integrated mentorship program for children of migrant workers is an outstanding story and I encourage you to ask her about it!)
As a young practitioner and recent graduate, I’m constantly learning from my various successes and mistakes, and I’m grateful for second, third, and fourth chances. The start-up life is an adventure to say the least, and doing that with the mission of social impact often only compounds the difficulty level. In this post, I briefly but candidly share a few of my experiences, hoping that they may be of encouragement to my fellow classmates and alumni, who are far more intelligent and accomplished than I; I am so grateful for their support.
One of the most awful dilemmas one faces in this field is the seeming contradiction between dreaming big while acting small. I doubt that anyone who decides to pick up and enroll in the MID program aims low, or desires to avoid making impact. I’d like to think that those of us who have taken this risk have our eyes set on something phenomenal, something transformational. Yet, there always comes that moment when you’re staring at the data, staring into their faces and all you can do is wonder if any of this is even possible to achieve.
My experiences with BEAM and MID constantly lead me into this dilemma. One requires an incredible sense of vision to believe one can even make a dent in the system, particularly with the scale of China’s population and level of inequity. But there’s a reason that the “visionary” types are known to be unorganized and incapable of actually getting anything done! As with any profession, there’s a whole other level of efficiency and skill required to be effective. I will admit that often times, the grit of budgeting, legal documents, and spreadsheets can damper your enthusiasm. Working at this level, getting lost in the projections and models can sometimes create a sense of distance between you and the issues. However, I’ve been keenly aware that these are the necessary operations to move us forward. There have been many long nights and many tears shed wondering if what I’m doing will ever make a difference. In those moments, what keeps me motivated is the big picture, the beautiful potential; when I see it all come full circle. The rewards of hearing testimonies from teachers or project sponsors are so worth the effort.
In this, I strive to be a “practical dreamer,” someone who embodies the inspired vision and can execute the little tasks with excellence. My mentor throughout this process, Ron Cao, has been an outstanding role model in showing me how this is done. As a venture capitalist in the Chinese tech industry, he invests in and coaches early-stage companies. In the Autumn of 2013, he joined our board and has been equipping me with the mindset of how to spot and cultivate potential, and how to make good decisions in light of my long-term dreams. Furthermore, Ron has demonstrated to me the power of bridging sectors together to solve a very wide-spanning issue. Though he is not in a role conventionally considered as part of the education field, he recognized and shaped his own role in building the organization to approach this issue. The theoretical and practical blend of the MID course provides a great avenue as well. I’ve still much to learn, but developing this mindset has been invaluable in many ways.
Education equity has long been an important issue to me personally, though the question I’ve had to ask is how to best approach the issue based on my background and capacity. I am under no pretensions that I am an expert or highly experienced. Furthermore, as MID students studying abroad in our non-native Beijing, we must all deal with the fact that many of us grapple with a history of foreign colonialism, overly-helpful Savior complexes, or perhaps even dissecting the neoliberalist front.
One of the greatest challenges and yet, greatest opportunities in this program was for me to understand my own position in this scheme. Particularly as an American-born-Chinese, I am constantly evaluating and re-evaluating my relationship with the surrounding community. In BEAM’s very early stages, we were executing our own projects in Beijing-based migrant classrooms. We saw the opportunities and jumped right in. However, it was before long that we realized not only our own limitations, but more importantly, the capacity of local teachers. Very quickly, we began exploring the model of partnering with teachers and finally toward the model of equipping the teachers with financial support and community-building resources. For the past year, we’ve been testing the different components of our online platform and are excited to re-launch another version next month.
Much of this evolution has been related to my own academic learnings and thoughts on how to best be involved. As I seek sustainable solutions for this issue, I have learned to embrace and hone my personal capacity for public outreach and fundraising. In this stage of my life, I see my efforts best put to use by building the infrastructure to sustain this. To be able to equip brilliant and passionate teachers who commit their lives to the classroom is a high honor. It is reassuring to know that we all have our different roles, and MID has been a safe space to explore what that is.
One of the most valuable assets of the MID course has been the community of supportive classmates and staff. The life of an entrepreneur is a notoriously isolating one. Despite connecting with at least one new person nearly every day, I find that very few people understand the level of self-imposed pressure, the seemingly unreasonable expectations, the mindset that would drive you to physical sickness because you can’t let your own organization down. I am particularly grateful for classmates like Emily, who share a heart with me on this issue and have walked (sometimes run) faithfully with me throughout this adventure. I encourage anyone else who is contemplating starting any company or organization to prioritize community-building. When even your dreams fail you, friends will be there by your side.
When I started the MID course in 2012, I had no idea where this would lead me. Yet here I am two years later, writing this post. I’m excited to see how BEAM will grow and how I can develop with it. I’m also looking forward to the next generations of emerging MID students who will continue to make an impact. You’re invited to follow our journey through visiting the platform at <www.xueyuanqiao.org>
By Keren Ruth Wong,Alumna, MID 2012 Class