Learning to give

Updated: 2012-05-11 07:51

By Li Aoxue (China Daily)

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Nonprofit founder aims to narrow education gap for Chinese students

Adense thicket of sugarcane lit by the moonlight, and homemade chicken soup are some of the fond memories Andrea Pasinetti has of his first visit to a Chinese village. He was on his way to a school in Shuangjiang county, Yunnan province, to learn more about rural education in China, when the truck he was traveling in became trapped on a muddy road.

Pasinetti waited near the sugarcane until the school's principal arrived - with a pot of chicken soup - to pick him up on a motorcycle. He was left with a very warm and welcoming impression, which is exactly the type of people he hopes to recruit for his nonprofit organization.

Pasinetti is the founder of Teach for China (TFC), an organization that aims to reduce the educational imbalance between children in urban and rural areas in China.

The 26-year-old Italian-American has visited almost 500 rural schools in remote areas of Yunnan, Henan, Guangdong and Qinghai provinces, and in Beijing.

Learning to give

Since TFC was established in 2008, it has worked as a bridge to send 150 graduates from top universities in the East and West such as Yale, Stanford, Columbia, Tsinghua, Peking and Fudan, to teach in rural areas that have a hard time attracting good teachers.

The thought of establishing such an organization came to Pasinetti when he was working on his dissertation in 2007 at Tsinghua University. He found 20 percent to 50 percent of students in rural China could not pass the entrance exams for secondary schools.

"Knowledge reshapes destiny, that's the slogan I saw in every school in rural China," Pasinetti says. "However, because of the lack of good teachers in these areas, students who want to go to university cannot fulfill this dream. But it will make me feel happy if we could do something and change this situation."

According to TFC, 70 percent of students in major cities in China go to universities, but only 5 percent in rural areas.

Pasinetti says the US was in a similar situation when Wendy Kopp first established Teach for America in 1989. Nearly 33,000 teachers have since joined that organization, including the 9,000 who are currently assigned to 43 urban and rural communities in the US.

"It is a fact that where children are born determines their educational prospects, but we strongly feel every child should receive a very good education," Pasinetti says.

After convincing Yale University doctoral student Hu Tingting and Tsinghua University student Rachel Wasser to help, Pasinetti opened a Beijing office in January 2008. Originally the organization was called the China Education Initiative, but was renamed when it joined forces with Teach for America.

Apart from having big funding partners such as the Li Ka Shing Foundation and Swire Group, Pasinetti has also personally financed the nonprofit organization. For its previous fiscal year, which ended on June 2011, 45 percent of its funding came from the US, 36 percent from Hong Kong and 16 percent from the Chinese mainland.

So far it has recruited more Chinese fellows than US fellows, but some American fellows are of Chinese descent. Between 2010 and 2011, TFC visited 126 universities in China and the US. They recruited 49 fellows from 30 universities in the US.

One of the challenges of recruiting, Pasinetti says, is to identify the right people to be part of the program.

"Not everyone can become a teacher in these rural schools in China, as they need to have many qualities, such as care, leadership and humanity," Pasinetti says.

One of the benefits of TFC, Pasinetti says, is it provides recent graduates an opportunity to develop their leadership skills as well as their sense of responsibility.

Although the organization was created less than four years ago, the number of fellows has increased rapidly from the original 14 to 150.

Pasinetti, who has devoted most of his time to his career, says he really loves and enjoys his work.

"When I wake up every day, it doesn't feel like going to work, but going to play," Pasinetti says. "I love everything I do, and I love working with my colleagues."

Linshuo Hao, a fellow from the University of Rochester in New York, describes Pasinetti as a visionary and hardworking leader.

"I am very impressed by his deep commitment to tackling China's educational inequality and his ability to inspire so many young leaders from both China and the US to end this social injustice," the 23-year-old says. She participated in the program from 2010-12 in Dali prefecture, Yunnan.

The founder, who was selected by China Newsweek last year as one of the top 10 influential people in China, majored in public policy at Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.

"One of the most important things that shaped my outlook was my education, as Woodrow Wilson School is focused on service ... and some of my course mates also went to work for Teach for America," Pasinetti says.

But family also helped form his compassionate attitude. When Pasinetti was a teenager, his parents always encouraged him to care about others. His grandfather, who was a pilot during World War II and is now quite successful in his business, also influenced him a lot when he was a child.

"My grandpa always told me that every one needs to eat, and everyone needs to have education," the Italian-American says.

Pasinetti's father is a medical professor at Cornell University in New York, and his mother operates a family business with his grandfather in Milan.

Although Pasinetti was born in Los Angeles and moved to New York when he was eight, he visits Milan twice a year to spend time with his grandparents and cousins. "China and Italy are very similar in that both of them have a lot of family businesses and place strong emphasis on family," Pasinetti says.

He says he felt quite comfortable when he arrived in China and it now feels like it is home.

"Five years is a big portion of my life. I would love to stay in this country, as long as I can make a positive contribution," Pasinetti says.