In 2005, a Holt adoptive mom helped initiate a continuing education project for orphaned and impoverished students in China facing severe cultural and social stigmas. With Holt’s help, 15 students have successfully graduated from this program.
One student wanted to be an architect. Another a veterinarian. Li Ai You wanted to be a teacher. He had the grades and spirited determination. In the United States, Li Ai You could have been eligible for many scholarships, possibly a full-ride to the college of his choice. But he lived in China, where competition is especially fierce. Where extracurricular activities and electives don’t enhance a college application, and test scores mean everything. If you perform poorly on your college entrance exam, there are no second chances. And if you come from a poor family or you are an orphan, the odds of attending college are slim.
Li Ai You’s father died from complications of HIV in 2004, and his mother died shortly after. Li Ai You went to live with his grandparents, and worked hard through high school with assistance from Holt’s sponsorship program. The resolve to better his family’s financial status motivated him through the years. As high school graduation approached, Li Ai You’s test scores were impressive enough to get him into college. Unfortunately, his family’s financial status dictated another path.
But in 2009, Li Ai You did start college, and last year, he graduated. A decade ago, Holt didn’t have a model established to help Li Ai You accomplish this feat. But through the efforts of one woman — a longtime Holt supporter and adoptive mom, and other generous donors — Li Ai You made it to his graduation day.
In 2005, while in China to adopt her son, Tina Gsedl was asked a poignant question by Cathy Yu, Holt’s program manager for the Shanxi province in China. “What do you think happens to the children who don’t get adopted?” Cathy asked. Tina pondered this for a moment. “Foster care maybe, if they are lucky,” Tina replied. In fact, when an orphaned child ages out of the adoption process in China, the state no longer provides for them. “The more I thought about this, the more it bugged me,” Tina says. She needed to do something for “the children who got stuck.”
Later that year, Tina received a letter from a girl in foster care who she had sponsored for many years. In the letter, the girl explained that she wished to attend college to become an art teacher but couldn’t afford the room and board fees. “My mother was an art teacher,” Tina explains. “How perfect, I thought. This is how I can help.” While in Beijing that summer, Tina met with Chinese officials to discuss the possibility of supporting her sponsored child through college. “They politely said no,” Tina says. “There was just no precedent for that kind of project in China at the time.” But Tina persisted, writing letters to the Chinese government, advocating for her sponsored child and for other impoverished and orphaned children. A year later, her efforts paid off when she received a call from Holt-China, asking if she was still interested. And with the help of Holt staff, the Chinese government and Tina, Holt’s continuing education program in China was born.
After word got out about this special program, “a groundswell of support emerged,” Rose McBride, director of program and foundation relations, says. Others wanted to get involved. Christabel Lee, a resident of Hong Kong and Holt sponsor, started supporting three students, including Li Ai You. Sally Weiner, a Holt adoptive mom, also learned about the program. “I wanted to pay it forward somehow,” she says. “My parents always supported my education, but not every parent can do that, so I wanted to give back.” For the last three years, Sally has helped 13 students in China go to college. Several of those students want to be teachers. One student in particular stood out to Sally — an aspiring veterinarian. “Pets aren’t valued as much in China,” Sally says. “The profession is highly ridiculed.” But instead of discouraging her sponsored student’s dream, Sally nurtured it. “I was thrilled for him,” Sally says. “I sent him pictures of my dog, and really wanted to support him. He has such a big heart.”
In June, nine students graduated with help from Holt’s continuing education program. Fifteen students have graduated from the program since its inception. Donor funds help to pay for books, room and board fees, tuition and other supplies. The money provided, however, is not what matters to students like Li Ai You, says Jian Chen, Holt’s vice president of China programs, says. “What’s important to these students is that someone far away really cares that they succeed,” Jian says. “Things around them are always so negative, but someone reaches out and gives them hope.”
Today, Li Ai You is a physics teacher thanks to the Holt sponsor who supported him through his youth, and Christabel Lee, who helped him through college. “Li Ai You is a cheerful and optimistic young man,” Christabel says. “He has always maintained a sense of optimism even through challenging personal times. I am pleased with his decision to enter the teaching profession.”
In the coming years, many children in Holt’s care — students with dreams just like Li Ai You — will need financial support to attend college. With donor support, 17 students will continue working towards their degrees this coming fall. And Holt-China staff is currently reviewing applications, looking for 10 more aspiring college students in Holt’s family strengthening and foster care programs who will need financial assistance for the upcoming school year.
Not much was expected of Li Ai You once he graduated from high school. Chinese society, according to Li Ai You, commanded that he return to his hometown and become a fisherman. “But I kept chasing after my dream, and it came true. I still feel like it’s a miracle,” he says. “Two ‘aunties’ from Holt took care of me. Through many kind-hearted people, my destiny was changed. I feel so lucky.”
Ashli Keyser | Staff Writer
If you are interested in learning more about Holt’s continuing education program in China, and helping a student achieve his or her dream, please contact Rose McBride at [email protected] or at 541-687-2202, ext 164.