response: September/October 2019 Issue

The Gift of Education

United Methodist Women members’ Mission Giving helps young women in China find community and pursue their dreams.

The Gift of Education
Scholarship student Gong studies physical education at Guizhou Normal University in Guizhou Province, China.

Editor's note: To protect the young women and the work of the Amity Foundation, full names and specific locations have been omitted so that we can share the story of the students and work supported by United Methodist Women members’ giving.

In Guizhou Province in southwest China, a young woman named Wu is studying foreign languages at Guizhou Normal University. She is learning to speak English, she said, so she can communicate with different people around the world. Wu, 20, attends school with the help of the Amity Foundation’s University for Girls program, supported by United Methodist Women. She is studying Spanish as well.

She lives in an underdeveloped village in Guizhou Province, where her parents and grandparents are farmers. She has an older brother and younger cousin who live with her. She wants to become a teacher.

“I just want to improve myself and determine as much as I can. I want to try some new things,” she said. “I want to learn as much as I can, learn more and more from different people.”

She’s able to do this thanks in part to a scholarship from United Methodist Women through the Amity Foundation.

“In some villages, many students are very worried about their fee for school, and many students lose their chance to study because they don’t have the money,” she said.

In the mountainous province the journey from smaller villages into the city is beautiful, but long, with many bridges to cross, tunnels to traverse and new construction to navigate. According to Donald Tam, project officer for Amity Foundation, the province is one of the poorest in the country. The University for Girls aims especially to support students whose parents leave them with relatives, many times because the parents seek work outside the village.

Scholarship recipient Zhao, 20, lives in a nearby county with her grandparents and some aunts, uncles and cousins, 12 in all. Her father became sick when she was very young, and her mother left home. Her grandparents are farmers, and the other family members work in a nearby sports equipment factory.

“My grandparents farm according to the seasons, so maybe sometimes they plant corn, sometimes they plant rice, according to the season. They don’t plant for selling; they just plant for themselves,” explained Zhao. “Because my aunties work in the factory they can give money to my grandparents.”

By high speed train the university is 40 minutes away. By a regular, less expensive train, it takes two hours. Zhao’s aunts help cover some of her tuition, transportation and living costs, but the scholarship is key to her being able to attend university, where she is in her third year of music studies. 

“The scholarship relieves the pressure off my family,” she said. “It helps my aunt take care of the kids and take care of herself.”

Reaching girls

The campus of Ghizhou Normal University is lively and peaceful, with trees and grass and open space and buildings in between. Students and area families commune in the green spaces. Restaurants, shops, banks and other services are also available to students on campus. Nearby Guiyang is a large, modern city, with new train stations and an airport. Tam, who served as my guide, explained that many of the buildings had been built within the past two years. Traveling from Hong Kong to Guiyang frequently in the past seven years, he’s seen the city grow and change quickly.

A wide, empty highway brought us to a countryside village about 180 miles outside of Guiyang. During other times of the year the road fills with vacationers or semi trucks, but for our trip we slowed only for construction, the sounds and smells of which were all around, until we turned onto a side road and then onto an even smaller road that wound its way up a hill, zig-zagging back and forth as it climbed. A conifer forest and beautiful views welcomed us at the top, interspersed with rice fields and some fields of corn. The road was paved only a year earlier.

There Amity Foundation has built a school, made of cement on high ground and built to withstand up to a magnitude 8.0 earthquake. The village, made up mostly of wood houses with terra cotta roofs, had recently experienced a fire in which 22 homes had been burned. In addition to being a safe place to learn, the school building can serve as a disaster relief shelter. We visited this school and another about an hour and a half away. Building and repairing schools is part of the foundation’s work in rural areas to help increase access to education, especially for girls, whose education is still often less prioritized than that of boys.

“In China, especially in the village, families normally value boys more than girls, so many times, even if the family has money, they will send the boys to school rather than the girls,” said Tam. “We try to encourage young women to go to school by sponsoring them. Like United Methodist Women, we know women are important in the family and community. If we help educate girls, we change communities.”

The Amity Foundation was one of the first nongovernmental organizations in China, according to Tam. It was established in 1985. The University for Girls project began in 2006.

“Originally we sponsored high school students, then we started sponsoring university students. We currently sponsor 171 students, with over 200 students graduating since 2008,” Tam said.

Support and connection

Gong is studying physical education at Guizhou Normal University. An athlete in high school, Gong, 20, decided to study sports at university. She lives in a rural village with her grandparents, parents, one older sister, two younger sisters and one younger brother. Her parents are also farmers.

“For me, education is more than just to make a living,” said Gong. “It’s also spiritual support for me. I can learn, plan my future and find spiritual support.”

A United Methodist Women A Call to Prayer and Self-Denial grant also helped University for Girls build an online platform, website and mobile app to help the young women stay connected to one another and the world.

“I think it’s important for young women to have opportunities to mo-bilize, learn and improve themselves,” said Zhao, who plans to go back to her village and teach music.

An, who is studying forestry, is happy to be in school not just for education she receives but for the connections she makes.

“I’ve joined a lot of groups. I’m very happy to be part of the University for Girls program,” she said. “Many of the students in the program are also from rural village families, they are kind and happy. We help one another, support one another. It is very good. Mission Giving logo

Nile Sprague is a photojournalist based in Mendocino, California. Tara Barnes is editor of response.

Posted or updated: 9/4/2019 12:00:00 AM

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