As student-council representatives from high schools across Vancouver munch on pizza, Tien Ching is explaining the plight of girls in rural China. "They are almost like your age," she tells the group at Vancouver School Board headquarters. "Graduating from high school and being accepted to universities, but they are financially not able to do so."
It's the next speaker who really drives the point home.
In not quite perfect English, Bixia Wang, 25, recounts her life in Gansu province. She was a bright student, with an aptitude for science and ambitions to study chemistry. But her mother was ill in hospital, and her father made very little money hauling concrete. Her little brother was disabled, likely the result of malnutrition. "My family couldn't afford my education," she says.
You can hear a pin drop in the room now; the pizza, forgotten.
Then, Ms. Wang met Ms. Ching, whose organization – the British Columbia Society for Educating Girls of Rural China – helped pay Ms. Wang's way through university.
"This program changed my life," she tells the Vancouver students. They burst into applause.
Ms. Wang is one of 286 Chinese girls who have been sponsored by Ms. Ching's charity, and the first to continue on to graduate studies in Canada. In September, she began her master's degree in chemistry at Simon Fraser University – on a scholarship.
"It was she who inspired me," Ms. Wang says about Ms. Ching.
Since its establishment in 2005, the charity has sponsored about 40 girls a year, giving them the money to pay for university. There are currently 170 sponsored students attending 92 universities, with 116 graduating since 2009. Close to 20 of those women have gone onto grad school.
Ms. Ching, 59, got the idea for the program in 2003 at a Vancouver Children's Choir fundraiser for Unicef's Go Girls! initiative educating girls in Africa. Ms. Ching recalls a Unicef representative onstage saying: "'We believe if a mother is educated, her children will be educated.' I thought: That's so true."
Ms. Ching did not go to university herself. She was on her way, attending one of the best girls schools in Beijing. But the Cultural Revolution meant jail for her politically outspoken father, while she and her mother – a physician – were sent away to Gansu: wild and remote, in the northwest. At 17, Ms. Ching began what would be eight years of work at a fertilizer factory.
In 1983, she managed to emigrate to Canada. She did not return to Gansu until the spring of 2005, when she visited schools and families as she established her charity. Over the next few months she raised $27,000 – enough to begin sending girls to school that September. The charity now raises about $130,000 to $150,000 each year, mostly through private donations.
Each year, Ms. Ching travels to Gansu to interview prospective students. Those approved receive $500 to $1000 a month on average over the course of their undergraduate education.
Ms. Wang recalls being nervous about her interview with Ms. Ching and relieved afterward. "She told me: 'Don't worry about the financial. We are going to support you,'" she remembers. "It was just like light in the dark."
In Gansu, Ms. Ching also meets with every returning student and even some graduates. The senior students help, making some of the introductory visits to the often remote homes of prospective students – literally climbing mountains at times to do so.
Graduates have become teachers, engineers, journalists.
"This really is satisfaction to see so many other women getting this opportunity I dreamed of when I was young," says Ms. Ching.
Now she is turning her sights to high school, noting that only 40 per cent of Grade 9 students in rural China continue on to Grade 10 (when it begins to cost money) – and that girls are more likely to drop out than boys. Ms. Ching hopes to launch a high-school program in 2012, her fundraising efforts targeting Canadian companies that operate in China. She's also looking for support from Lower Mainland high schools; perhaps a twinning program that will see students raise money, but also correspond with their Chinese counterparts. Because, while this is mostly about money, it's also about making a connection, and offering encouragement.
"Her help is not only financial assistance," Ms. Wang says, struggling with her English – and her emotions. "This program has changed my life and it will change my children's life." She pauses. "And my children's children's life."