Building Bridges tackles educational inequality between rural, urban China

Google “China” and you will see stories about its growing economy and its booming industry, as well as predictions that the nation will be the next largest global power. But, while the urban centers in China are thriving, rural China — a side that Westerners rarely see — continues to face challenges. Building Bridges, a Yale undergraduate organization, attempts to bridge the gap between the progress experienced in urban areas and in rural areas.

In 2008, Building Bridges was initially formed in response to the Wenchuan Earthquake, a magnitude 8.0 earthquake that devastated the mountainous central region in Sichuan province, China. That summer, Shuai Yuan, Helen Gao, and Merlyn Deng — all Class of 2011 — went with groups from other Chinese universities to volunteer in, learn about, document, and experience the world that the earthquake victims had created in their temporary housing community.

A Yale students stands before a classroom of Chinese elementary school students
Barkley Dai ’20 of Pauli Murray College stands before his elementary school class in Hongtong.

The organization has since evolved to focusing on fostering better connections to various parts of rural China. In addition to organizing relief efforts, Building Bridges works with its Chinese counterparts to network with philanthropic organizations and to introduce undergraduates to teaching opportunities in rural China. In particular, Building Bridges aims to advance education in rural China by nurturing long-lasting relationships between American and Chinese students and Chinese primary school students.

In order to achieve these goals, Building Bridges members do fundraising year-round and organize service-teaching trips to rural China during summer breaks. In August, Building Bridges sent a team of 10 Yalies along with 40 other students from Peking University, Shanghai Jiaotong University, and Hong Kong University to teach more than 500 students at a rural school in Hongtong, Shanxi, an isolated mountainous province in central China. There they helped students prepare for the challenging gaokao, China’s national higher education examination.  

The students we met and befriended in this rural area were amazing in how driven and resourceful they were in bravely facing various disadvantages in attempts to reach their full potential,” said Gracie Jin ’20 of Berkeley College, who is co-president of Building Bridges. “They were both humbling and inspiring to me in their optimism and energy to make a better life for themselves in the world.”

A Yale student stands in a circle of young students, holding a ukelele
Gracie Jin teaching a fifth grade class the English song “You Are My Sunshine” accompanied by the ukulele in the courtyard of the Shanjiao elementary school in Hongtong, Shanxi.

Jin has many reasons to feel empathy with these students. Jin initially grew up in Yueqing, a small town on the southeastern coast of China. As child, she and her family moved to Pittsburgh where she remembers attending a summer camp for struggling children in Pittsburgh’s public school district. In time her family was able to relocate into a high-ranked suburban public school system, where Jin received the kind of education that led her to Yale.

I am grateful for the opportunities I received along my educational journey, but am also painfully aware of the good fortune and privilege that led me here,” said Jin. “Having now personally witnessed education inequity in both China and America, I am eager to help others gain the same opportunities that helped to change my life. My work with Building Bridges empowers me to do this.”

Shunhe Wang, a sophomore in Morse College and a member of Building Bridges who traveled with a team to Hongtong this summer, said: “I won’t lie; at first it was a rough start trying to get students to actively engage, but by the end of our time there, the students’ tears at our departure spoke volumes. I still carry pieces of them with me today — letters, a piece of origami, messages on WeChat — and will never forget them or the experience.”

A Yale student stands amidst a crowd of smiling, waving teenagers.
Mylinh He ’20 Benjamin Frankling College, a member of the Building Bridges Curriculum Team, poses with her high school class.

Building Bridges offers hands-on experience through one of three different teams: curriculum, outreach, and technology.

Curriculum: This year the organization is writing a curriculum focusing on social issues to which Chinese students often get minimal exposure. These include topics such as mental health, gender equality, and cultural diversity.

Outreach: The Outreach Team is focusing on fundraising/development efforts to fully subsidize trip travel costs. It reaches out to new sponsors while maintaining relationships with current partners such as the Yale-China Association, Dwight Hall Social Innovation Lab, Aixin Foundation, and Yale Center Beijing.

Technology: The Technology Team is tackling initiatives such as updating the organization’s website, enhancing its social media presence, and producing a video/documentary project that raises awareness and fosters United States and China cultural connections on a larger scale.

Resources for more information about the organization, how to potentially get involved, and ongoing news can be obtained by visiting the Building Bridges Facebook page or by contacting Jin at [email protected].

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Media Contact

Adam Gaber: [email protected], 203-436-5449