Let Them Lead: Empowering Rural Youth Through Education

Special Focus : Innovating for Equity in Education
Learning Ecosystems and Leadership January 16, 2017

Before I started my one-year poverty alleviation service at Mendai, a remote mountain village 27-hour away by train from Beijing, I was talking to the local government officials. They told me I was wasting my time with those Hmong people: “I can assure you,” one of them said, “their whole lives are about waiting. You can’t do much to change them.” “Yes, they are the worst people for you to serve”, another official chimed in.

The other day, I went hiking with a teenage girl whose parents left her behind to go to the city as migrant workers. She took me to her favorite place, some two hours hike up in the mountains. Nestled among the blue hills and green streams, we talked all afternoon: village life, TV dramas, her teachers and friends in school… and most of all, dreams and aspirations. 

She has a lot of dreams: some seem to be pretty simple, and some quite hard to achieve. She wants to experience what it is like to be in an elevator; she also dreams of becoming a movie star so she can live out her many wild fantasies. There is one, though, so impressive that fundamentally changed my understanding of rural education. In the purest tone of a child, she told me, “I want to be a volunteer. I want to do great things for people.”

When it comes to rural education, we so often become used to giving, rather than empowering. However, it is only until students start to seek education in a motivated way that they can truly benefit from all the educational resources we have to offer. Because when we give too much in the way as if we, as “superiors”, are supposed to do so, students learn in a passive way and when they grow up, they become those “worst people to serve” who “spend their whole lives waiting”.

Education is to bring the best out of people, help them find their identity, motivate them to seek truth and realize their full potential. True, rural students are disadvantaged from misallocation of resources, information deficiency, and imperfections of a lot of other socioeconomic factors. But as learners, it is as important, if not more important for them to obtain autonomy, mastery and purpose, which Daniel Pink emphasized in her book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. Do not forget that they can also lead, and remember as active learners, they will be able to become active change makers to their own communities, if empowered. When it comes to rural students of minority groups, it is also particularly crucial to look into the context and build their cultural confidence in the process of learning.

Then here comes the question: how?

First, students from rural areas need to gain a better understanding of what is happening outside the mountains through interactive activities such as guest speakers and field trips. In this way, they will get a hands-on experience about how their learning can be used to solve issues and improve the lives of people in their communities. They will also be able to explore different fields such as medicine, engineering, business…etc. 

After being exposed to different potentials, they would become more engaged through capacity building and impact creation. Students can choose their area of interest, design their own public service projects and implement them along with the help of mentors and teachers. After that, we can also create a platform for them to present their projects to their communities, sharing their ideas with friends, family and policy makers. For younger students, they can play some problem-solving games. As a result, they not only know about more possibilities out there, but also build confidence in themselves that they can make it. 

The emphasis on the role of the community is essential, too, especially for the minority groups. In many remote areas the cultural inheritance is dying away: children and youth see their own cultures not as something to be proud of, but stigmas representing roots of poverty. Context-related learning is particularly beneficial here. Empowering students to lead their own ways of promoting cultural understanding and thrive while utilizing advantages of cultural differences would both bring out better educational outcomes and breathe new life into local economies.

All in all, the core to intrinsically motivate rural students to learn is to connect the knowledge and lessons learned in classroom with problems relevant to the students’ context. One big issue unsolved these days is to create the necessary environment in which students grow to believe in themselves and the importance of the role they play in the improvement of their community. Let them lead, and be prepared to be surprised. 

This article was written by Ms Yuxuan Chen, a WISE Learner.