June 13, 2006

Cornell students have deep desire to use education to change lives of 600 children in rural China

Turning Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and fried rice into a brand new bricks-and-mortar school for children in rural China is nothing new for Cornell University rising junior Richard Zhao.

As a high school senior in Illinois, the mechanical engineering major founded an organization called Project Hope Committee of Lake Forest Academy. Through it, he spearheaded a fund-raising effort that resulted in the new school for children in Yujiang, a county in China's Jiangxi province.

Zhao brought his organization to Cornell, renamed it Operation Developing Elementary Education Possibilities in China, or DEEP, and spearheaded fund-raising efforts on campus. Now with those funds, for three weeks this July, Zhao will return to Yujiang with two Cornell students, a Cornell alumnus and an English-as-a-second-language teacher from Lake Forest Academy. Their goal: to reach 600-plus schoolchildren by teaching their teachers conversational English.

Why China? "Because I'm from there, because I know it well, and I want do something that will have an actual impact," said Zhao, who was born in Los Angeles but spent much of his childhood in Shanghai. "We also want to let people in rural areas know the importance of education. Now that we're in the 21st century, the information age, without an education, you can't do anything."

According to DEEP's Web site, http://www.operationdeep.org, more than 40 million primary and junior-high Chinese students live in poverty. Most of them are from less-developed rural areas, such as the neighboring villages of Jindun and Nixia, where the school was built, opening in 2005 and replacing each village's dilapidated school building.

The organization's doughnut-and-fried-rice effort in Illinois raised $12,000 that, when leveraged with local Chinese government funds, helped build the $50,000 Jin-Ni Lake Forest Academy Hope Elementary School (the name combines Jindun and Nixia with Lake Forest Academy).

This summer's volunteer team from Cornell will help the school's teachers, whose lessons are generally limited to written English from outdated British texts, teach students how to speak English. Team members, picked from a Cornell applicant pool of more than 20, are:

Each will receive up to $500 for air travel in addition to covered expenses within China. Andrew Fleury, a rising junior majoring in economics and Asian studies and DEEP's project director and acting chair while Zhao attends an internship this fall, said the three were selected not only for their experience, but also for their dedication and passion.

Zhao and Fleury seek to raise awareness of China through DEEP's activities, such as a Cornell lecture last April by two lawyers with extensive experience in China who discussed trade, investment and other developments. "By raising awareness of the positive relationship between China and the U.S., we can get more people to help rural China," Zhao said.

Fenn, who will be in China on an unrelated internship, looks forward to meeting the challenges of the language barrier, cultural differences and learning about lifestyles outside the nation's major cities. Although he has taught in China's metropolitan areas, he wants to help people in the shantytowns and other areas of abject poverty he saw while traveling between cities. He said that learning English could provide an avenue toward upward mobility for some rural residents.

"I don't know how much one single person can do, but I think DEEP is a good way to help," Fenn said.

Campus involvement is key to DEEP's aid

Operation DEEP's aid targets may be a world away from Ithaca, but its leaders say its work could not happen without the Cornell community.

Richard Zhao and Andrew Fleury, rising juniors and leaders of the student-run organization, say that funds from such groups as the International Student Programming Board and Public Service Center, as well as funds raised through such campus events as Asia Night and Casino Night benefits, help support the Jin-Ni elementary school that Zhao helped build in China. These funds also cover Cornell teaching volunteers' expenses in China.

DEEP, which is affiliated with the Public Service Center, has dedicated members, says Joyce Muchan, the center's assistant director for student programs. "As Richard brings students from Cornell to work in that community, he's also educating this community on issues faced there, such as the lack of resources and educational inequity," she says.

During the fall semester, DEEP plans events associated with Cornell Welcome Weekend and its Casino Night, which will help the student group expand its Teaching and Training Project in 2007.

The organization's long-term goal is to build a second school for children in a rural community in China.