Living the dream

Updated: 2012-10-26 09:42

By Li Aoxue (China Daily)

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 Living the dream

Zhang Chen is a Chinese American who helps Chinese students pursue ambitions abroad. Provided to China Daily

Businessman hopes to improve quality and equality of education

Zhang Chen, a 31-year-old Chinese American, has been living his dream for the past four years by helping China's youth build their own.

"Most people are easily satisfied once they graduate, but if they don't have a dream they won't do something extraordinary with their lives. My dream is to help them build their own ambitions and change perceptions of China's education system," he says.

Since Zhang launched AIC Education Technology in 2008, he has helped 1,000 Chinese students apply for US university places. Of the applicants, 40 percent went to top 10 universities and 100 percent received an offer to study at a top 50 institution.

"The overseas study industry is very important nowadays with lots of Chinese students wanting to study abroad," Zhang says.

"But unfortunately many agencies help students by providing fake documents in order to get an offer."

Students who go to AIC Education are mentored in essay writing and attend an assessment center to get to know themselves better as Zhang believes self expression and self awareness are fundamental to developing personal plans.

"Education is not about teaching students to memorize information," he says. "It is more important that they build and pursue ambitions."

The number of students using AIC Education each year has been rising steadily by about 30 percent a year since the company was launched. This year about 300 students signed up for its services.

It charges 100,000 yuan ($16,000) per student. While this is relatively expensive, Zhang puts 10 percent of the company's annual revenue each year toward a scholarship for students who want to study in the US but cannot afford the tuition fees. This has raised about $400,000 since 2008.

"One of my dreams is to reduce educational inequality between the rich and the poor in China. I also hope the company can become a role model and exert some influence on the Chinese education system," Zhang says.

Born into a well-off Chinese family in New Jersey, Zhang felt directionless and lacked motivation as a teenager. This changed in his second year of senior high school when he decided to spend some time in a village in Shanxi province, China.

"I saw a lot of people who did not have the chances in life that I had and it made me feel guilty that I was wasting my opportunities," Zhang says.

This experience stayed with Zhang when he returned to the US and he began developing a plan to introduce US education to China.

"The US higher education system contains some good elements that China could learn from and has produced many outstanding individuals," he says.

On graduating from Columbia University in 2004, Zhang landed an investment banking job with Citibank in New York.

In 2007 his break came when a Hong Kong-based investment bank agreed to back him in launching AIC Education.

However, that partnership did not last long.

"I found it difficult to work with them as they put too much emphasis on profit while in my opinion education should focus on doing what is good for the students and not be seen as a cash cow," Zhang says.

Zhang later split with the Hong Kong investment bank and began running the business by himself.

"I guess I am just a crazy person who does not have too much fear and is not afraid of giving up realistic things to pursue his dream," Zhang says.

AIC Education currently employs about 25 American and 40 Chinese teachers and has branches in nine Chinese cities including Beijing, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Hangzhou and Xi'an.

In 2009 the company set up a summer camp, which takes 30 students to live in a Chinese village and work alongside local students each year.

"Most students who go to study abroad lack motivation as they are from wealthy families. Sending them to experience a different way of life acts as an inspiration and teaches them to treasure the opportunities they have in life," Zhang says.

This year he plans to launch a senior high school, which has been in planning for three years. It will combine aspects of Chinese and US education.

Like the rest of the company, the high school will charge 80 percent of students and give scholarships to 20 percent.

"This will be a milestone for AIC Education as it will both deepen our roots in China and help us to develop our education methods," Zhang says.

The company will also launch online classes, some of which will be free of charge, for students in more remote areas of the country.

At Columbia University Zhang was already encouraged to do something with his life that would benefit the world.

"One of my role models is Bill Gates. Because of him everyone can now use a computer," he says.

"Bill Gates gave to benefit others and that should be remembered by all entrepreneurs.

"Life is not about how much you can make for yourself, it is about how much you can give to others.

"I'm glad I found a direction in life early and I hope to pursue and realize my dream for the rest of my life."

(China Daily 10/26/2012 page21)