YUNNAN, Southwest China — Zhi Zhengjiao, 17, grew up among rolling green hills full of corn stalks and tea shrubs. But despite this natural vista, other outlooks remain dull. For children like Zhengjiao, there are two typical career paths: becoming a migrant worker in the city or staying home to farm.
Zhengjiao, who has waist-length hair and bangs that nearly cover her eyes, is creative and fond of drawing. She never considered it a skill that could earn her money until two years ago, when she listened to a designer share her career experience at school, Nanjian No. 2 Middle School. Now, Zhengjiao is set on becoming a fashion designer.
Nanjian Yi Autonomous County is a three-hour drive along a rugged mountain road from Dali, the nearest city. Whereas urban parents push their children to outperform their peers, here, as well as elsewhere in China’s underdeveloped rural heartland, many see education as useless — partly for economic reasons, partly for lack of imagination. There are few role models for academic success. Zhengjiao’s mother, a farmer, only ever attended elementary school.
The career events at Nanjian No. 2 are organized by an NGO, Tumeng, to inspire students to continue their studies beyond middle school, the end of China’s compulsory education period. Children are supposed to stay in school until ninth grade, when most children are around 15 years old. But in rural areas such as Nanjian, many children start school late and drop out early. Most of the roughly 1,400 students at the school come from villages in the surrounding countryside, and more than 90 percent are Yi — an ethnic minority of about 8 million people.
“Students here have no idea what life is like outside of the mountains, and they think that if they can’t get into high school or college, they can always just go back to the mountain and grow tea,” says Chen Fei, a volunteer teacher at the school. Zhengjiao tells Sixth Tone that before taking part in Tumeng’s event, the only occupations she had heard of besides being a farmer or factory worker were teacher, doctor, and scientist.
Zhengjiao, now in her last grade of middle school, has signed up for art classes — which she hopes will allow her to further her education. Her mother supports this ambition. “With my grades, it’s not easy to get admitted to a high school, but after studying painting for two years, I can get bonus points as an art candidate,” Zhengjiao says animatedly. “Once I go to high school, I’m closer to my dream school: China Academy of Art.”
Tumeng was founded by Yang Xueqin, who realized the need to motivate rural students after she volunteered as a middle school geography teacher in rural Yunnan. Although it was rewarding for the Chongqing native to see her students improve, she says she felt powerless to prevent children from dropping out. When she finished her two-year stint, her class was twice as small as when she started. “They don’t know why they should study, because they lack the motivation to learn,” Yang says.
The solution was giving the children role models. “Through online videos, professionals can share their own career paths and workplace experiences with children in remote areas,” Yang explains. Beijing-based Tumeng is as aspirational as its name, which is made up of the characters for “journey” and “dream.” Since 2015, it has reached more than 60,000 pupils from all over China. Hundreds of volunteer professionals have talked about how they became archaeologists, e-sports players, programmers, illustrators, or interior designers.
Tumeng initially spread through volunteer teachers. Yang Fuqiong (no relation to Yang Xueqin) teaches Chinese at Muping Middle School in Yibin, in southwestern Sichuan province. She found Tumeng when she was desperate for a way to stir up the students’ passion for studying. “They think they have no future,” she says. “But they are so smart and full of potential.” The career planning courses have noticeably changed the students, she says: They do their homework instead of playing on their phones. “They’ve realized that being a migrant worker isn’t their only option after graduation.”
In the beginning, it proved hard to convince school principals, who saw career classes as a distraction, Yang Xueqin says. Lou Shengzhang, the principal of Nanjian No. 2, was an exception. He tells Sixth Tone that while only a few of his students have good enough grades to enroll in high school, he sees value in expanding everyone’s horizons. Even university-educated locals often choose to become civil servants purely because it’s the only high-level occupation they know. “They don’t know much about [the types of skills] society needs, and what their own strengths are,” he says.
Luo, who attended university, says that his students’ parents, mostly farmers, were initially skeptical. They thought the people sharing their stories were exceptions, and that their careers were unattainable for their own children. But Luo persisted, and parental opposition dwindled after he showed videos of Tumeng events that included a top-level wrestler from rural Yunnan and a boy from a farming family who had become a successful investor in Shanghai.
Locally, women often become mothers at a young age. Zhengjiao knows several classmates who are already pregnant. When she told her friends and roommates about an event at which a female pilot talked about her career, they were shocked. “They can’t imagine a girl still being single at 30 and becoming a professional pilot,” she says. Chang Ranran, a 17-year-old classmate of Zhengjiao’s, agrees that the events changed her views on what is possible in life. “After middle school, many girls get pregnant, and so we think our whole lives will just be like this,” Ranran says, referring to married life in the countryside.
Tumeng has also expanded to cities, but because the NGO’s donors only sponsor rural programs, urban schools must pay to participate. Duan Lili, founder of Shanghai-based Career Sharing — a nonprofit organization that aims to help young people solve career problems — sees a need for career education among urban students. High-schoolers are made to choose a major, but they often don’t know what they want. “I’ve noticed that many university students are at a loss,” Duan says, explaining that many realize they are not interested in continuing in the direction they initially choose. “Their college life just passes in a blur without a particular goal,” she says.
Back in Yunnan, Ranran tells Sixth Tone that her lifelong dream of being a TV host always seemed “too far away.” In 2016, she signed up for a career-sharing event hosted by a TV personality. “I used to think of it as a glorious job that could bring an audience happiness, but then I learned about the persistent effort behind the glitz and glamor,” Ranran says.
Afterward, Ranran, who wears her hair in a bob to stand out from other Yi girls, made the first step toward what might become a media career by volunteering to be a host for the school’s radio station. Every day during lunch and dinner, her voice booms across campus as she delivers the latest news, plays pop songs, and reads essays written by students. “I’m not entirely sure if I will still want to be a TV host in the future, as there are many more professions out there,” Ranran says. “But at least I’m one step ahead of my peers.”
This article was published on Sixth Tone.