Some weren’t sure she could make it in America.
He Mei’s home in rural China had no electricity, and no roads. When she walked over the mountains to school at the beginning of every semester, her older sister escorted her before dawn with a torch.
From this remote beginning, Mei has made it to a university in upstate New York.
At the end of the year, Mei will do what few visiting Asian students do. She’ll take her new master’s degree in educational leadership and go all the way home, not to the booming urban areas that are luring back graduates, but back to the mountains where she started.
Her village needs her
She wants to teach the children of her Mosuo ethnic group and send them on their long way into the world, one that moves so much faster than their own.
“Others say, ’You deserve not to go back,”’ Mei says, in enthusiastic and almost fluent English. “I say, ’My village deserves me to go back.”’
Mei, 27, is one of about 450 students chosen every year from 22 countries to join the Ford Foundation International Fellowship Program. The 10-year program was created in 2000 with the largest grant in the foundation’s history, $280 million, to bring together bright young people from the ends of the world.
Fellows can choose where they would like to study. When they’ve completed their degree, the foundation encourages them to return home.
Mei, already holding an undergraduate degree from an institute for ethnic minorities in her province, chose The College of Saint Rose because she knew of another Chinese student there.
Chosen from hundreds of applications
The program looks for people with stories like Mei’s, with less privileged backgrounds but with open minds, in the hope of giving them a voice at an increasingly global table.
Many fellows do go home, says Keith Clemenger, director of the Beijing office that chooses about 35 Chinese fellows a year from hundreds of applications.
But Clemenger adds, “Few have come from more remote areas than He Mei.”
Mei arrived in America in the spring of 2003 with a new laptop from the foundation, but she didn’t know how to turn it on. She didn’t understand credit cards. Her roommate taught her about coin-operated washing machines.
“I encounter so many difficulties,” Mei wrote then for her first class, Introduction to Education Leadership. “Sometimes I even do not understand what is the teacher’s assignment.
Flourishing in a foreign land
“But I am a little Chinese bamboo, and here, there are a lot of sunlight, rain, breeze and so on,” she wrote. “I will grow up quickly.”
Three months later, Mei was linking a digital camera to her laptop to send photos to her home’s closest cybercafe, two days’ travel from her village in southern China’s Yunnan Province. She had joined a conversation group at a local library and was advancing quickly through English. She still trembled when speaking in front of people, but she was no longer so shy.
“As far as I’m concerned, she’s the future of the China we’ll be growing up with,” says her academic adviser, Perry Berkowitz, an assistant education professor at Saint Rose.
Mei thanks her father, Tser, for getting her this far. Years ago, he left the village to join a logging project. Meeting people from other parts of China opened for him a new world. He couldn’t even speak Mandarin, the major language that overlaps China’s dialects, so his new colleagues taught him to speak it and write.
He decided Mei would have a proper education, so she could go even farther.
Her ambition started early. In fourth grade, the highest class her village offered, she realized she’d have to study harder than her classmates for the rare chance to study on the far side of the mountains. When she left, villagers sent her off with eggs, chickens, pork and other gifts.
She grew up and became a teacher, in the town with the cybercafe, Ninglang. She took an unusual approach.
“Most teachers in China are very serious, or they think they can’t control their students otherwise,” says Sharon Lou, Mei’s roommate, who also is from China. “But Mei talks to them in a much mature way, so they love her.”
Mei encouraged students to relax and talk openly, giving them her phone number and address. She taught them English through American songs, and they came to her for translations and for advice.
“I don’t care if they go to a very good college or be a farmer, as long as they find themselves,” Mei says. “One student wrote that he failed again and wanted to commit suicide. I said, ’What? College is your whole life? No.’ He said he felt much better.”
Now in America, Mei hums with ideas. She wants to see how parents back home can get involved in education. She speaks enthusiastically of parent-teacher associations.
“There’s a sense of community Mei has I wish we had,” Berkowitz says. “It will be very hard when she leaves.”
Mei agrees, but she has another good reason to go.
A teacher — and a parent
Every day, she gets on the phone and listens to her youngest student grow up.
When Mei left, her daughter Deshdima was 3 months old. Now she’s 3. During the last week of August, in another hint of the weight of education in China, Deshdima entered kindergarten.
This separation has been the hardest part of Mei’s journey. “But I knew very well about myself,” she wrote soon after arriving in the New York capital. “If I wanted to serve the society much better, I had no choice but to go further to learn more.”
Now Mei sits curled up in a chair in front of her laptop and bilingual books in her off-campus apartment. She talks about bringing the first satellite dish to her village in China, driven over a recently built and very raw dirt road. In the village, a generator can run the TV and the single light bulb, but not both at the same time.
Mei’s cell phone rings. “Excuse me,” she says, casually reaching for her earpiece.
The caller isn’t family, but a new student from Uzbekistan. Mei offers to take her to the bank for a new account, and to the Social Security office for paperwork. Two years have passed, and Mei’s become an expert. She knows well what a newcomer to America needs.
And, she adds, always so straightforward, “I will spend time with her if she wants to cry.”