2008 PFIG Recipient James Liao

Career Administrator

James Liao
School of Engineering & Applied Sciences and The College of Arts & Sciences
Electrical Engineering and Economics 
2010 Graduation Year

Internship: Dreams Corps International in China

I grew up in a small city near the East Coast. I grew up to age 13 and then came to the United States . Both my parents came from rural villages near the city. From my mom’s family, they are all educators in elementary school, middle school, high school, and college. My mother was an elementary math teacher. My conception about teachers and schools are probably different than the other kids. As a son of a teacher, I grew up in the school environment. I was the kid that did my homework in the teachers’ office. I was the kid that sat in the back of the 6th grade classroom while I was in 1st grade. I was the kid that heard so many other kids call my mom “Lao Shi” (teacher). Consequently, I always feel the teachers are my parents and the school is my home. And I believe that should be what all the students should feel: that teachers care about them and the school is the best place for learning and grow. Yet, the current situations in China ’s education system are that education is less about learning and growing, but more orientated with exam scores and ranking of the school. Moreover, students in schools do not know the reasons why they are in school, except that is what they have to do to get a job and money in the future. Likewise, teachers design their curriculums around the most efficient way to ensure high scores in standard exams by hard-memory techniques of repeating the problem sets few hundred times. The developments of students’ potential, creativity, imagination, or enjoyment of knowledge are no longer seen as objectives for the courses. Students lack motivations to take extra steps, think outside the box, and the skills to innovate. The situations are much unpleasant at the rural sites of China , because of the need of funding, material and human resources. As China is at the thriving moment of industrialization and catching up rapidly with rest of the World, it has to make sure that the social developments are growing at the same rate to provide quality education and resources for the future generations equally. Otherwise, the gap between the rich and the poor will continue to grow, where inequity will fragment the society. 

Dream Corps is a non-profit organization that started with a group of socially conscious Chinese students studying in Duke, UPenn, and UNC. It was started as a social club called “Society, Science and Self-awareness” (3S). The group was the brainchild of a series of presentations and discussions from the club relating to education in rural China . Then the founders of Dream Corps brainstormed possible ideas for projects that subject to the available time (summer vacation in college), funding (limited in start-up), and manpower (college students volunteering), and they came up with the idea of building libraries as public spaces to help improve the education quality and promote equity. So what do we do? We build Dream Libraries as fun and comfortable places, where children enjoy reading, learning, and hanging out together in or after school. We recruit Dream Librarians from local communities to run the libraries, where children can find books that are complementary to curriculum and enhance extra-curricular interests. Our libraries in local communities are also used as information platforms for adults to find books of their interests, providing practical information (on education, finance, healthcare, law, technology etc.), and as public space for cultural activities of the community. To promote use of the library and community awareness of it as public space, we organize overseas volunteers to run summer activities for children at Dream Libraries, including, but not limited to, reading programs, English teaching, essay contests, talent shows, and art and technology projects. The goal is to help local children and youth build a lifelong interest in reading and learning itself in the age of information and globalization. The long term vision is that Dream Libraries will become public spaces with a focus on children and youth that are run and sustained by the local communities they serve. 

I have been involved with Dream Corps since the summer of my first year in college. Ever since, I have worked closely with public outreach, multi-media promotion, volunteer recruitment, training, and leading a team back to the village I first participated. In the summer 2008, it is my second year taking the summer internship with Dream Corps. My responsibilities include being the Training Camp manager to facilitate workshops, plan training logistics, and organize the volunteer groups. Secondly, I am the member on the Summer Volunteer Program Committee to monitor and evaluate progresses in each site, respond to situations and make collective decisions for program implementations. Thirdly, I am the team leader for the Henan team, where we will be going back for the third year on the site to continue to strengthen the library management, provide reading programs, implement library functions with the school, and build up relationships with local community members and government. Finally, I will be in the team to put together the project conclusion report, to analyze documents, photos, and videos collected from the teams in the summer. Then I will create multi-media panels using online social and media tools such as YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, MySpace, and various other non-profit and NGO platforms to share the stories and experiences of our work. 

I am really looking forward to this summer’s experience to gain knowledge in the areas of rural development and education in China . Also I hope to learn more about the culture in the Henan rural village, find out what the local villagers care about, worry about, are most excited about, and think about. Finally, I wish through this summer to build up my experiences in running NGO and non-profit public services, thus provide foundations and networks for me to find my most suitable “battleground” so my skills and knowledge can serve the best for areas in social development.

Notes on the first week 

After I received the grant from the Parents Committee for my unpaid internship, I was very thrilled and started to plan out the details of my work in the summer. Then coincidentally a friend of mine sent me an email about the program called Agents of Change (AoC) from the group named SustainUS. SustainUS is a group of young people dedicated to advancing sustainable development and youth empowerment in the United States . Agents of Change is a program that brings U.S.-based youth delegates to conferences and summits related to international policy, primary at the United Nations. I applied as an AoC to the Sixteenth Session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD-16), which is held at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City from May 5 – 16, 2008. This Commission is structured in two-year cycles, comprised of a “review” year and a “policy” year, each dealing with different thematic issues. CSD-16 is a review session and addresses the topics of agriculture, rural development, land, drought, desertification, and Africa . In addition, CSD-16 will follow-up on the CSD-13 decision to review progress on water and sanitation. 

My Dream Corps background and experiences in rural development got me into the program. I told Dream Corps and they are very happy to let me represent the organization in this conference. I was at the time both very excited and anxious on what to expect there. However, I was only able to attend the conference on the second-half week due to my last exam finishing on May 9th. I came to NYC during the weekend, the weather has been quiet cold, and windy. Despite it is already near summer time, I thought this may reflect part of the climate change crisis. For the past week, the daily life of being a delegate in the UN is similar to a normal job schedule (of course, this is work). Every morning I got up around 6:30 and commute through the famous NYC transportation system. Next I will walk on the sidewalk shoulder-to-shoulder to all kinds of professionals with coffee in one hand and newspaper in another. Then I get to the visitor’s center of UN, and I get to just show my UN ID pass and I automatically get through without the line. Funny, that was always my first moment of the day, and somehow it brings me up by knowing that I am part of the largest international agency. The night before, I will make plans after carefully reading over the CSD-Today agenda that includes all the big hearing events, side-events of special presentations, and show-cases of different public service organizations. Throughout the day, I move from one conference room to the next listening to every nation’s report on current development, and with exciting discussions in between the break times with other people. I worked with government officials, scientists, civil society representatives, and youth from around the world to review progress on issues related to sustainable development. As part of the youth caucus (or the Children and Youth major group of UN) presented case studies and policy statements on behalf of youth; participated in forums with fellow representatives of civil society; and met with government delegates of different nations, international organizations, and the US State Department. 

There are a few highlights that are particularly memorable from the past week besides the usual. On Monday, when we were getting our photos taken for UN ID-pass. I met with a group of people from China at the registration. They are the China Association of Women Entrepreneurs. I helped with translation because their translator was lost in touch. Later on, during the waiting period to get our photos taken, we started chatting with each other. They have particular interests starting with how did a young boy like me going to the same conference as the near 50 life-accomplished influential women entrepreneurs of China . I told them my story of Dream Corps, and how I believe youth should share equal voices in the decisions making process for policies, since we will be the ones living in the future that these decisions will take effect. Then I continued with my perspectives regarding rural China development and projects I been working on. One woman came out and said she is doing work and research in IT development for agricultural production for rural China , and in terms she has always been very interested in education of the rural children, because she knows the important education of the future generations is to the development of the rural sector. There is only so much economy can grow without the potential of technology. Yet in order to really implement technology, it needs the combination of facility infrastructure and people with skills to implement, operation, and maintain the technology in order to put in use its fullest capabilities. The woman later one I found out she is actually the Secretary-General of the Ministry of Information Industry of China. She and I exchanged our contact info, and she wanted to see my again when I get to Beijing , and wants to continue our conversations. On Wednesday, the devastating news of the Earthquake in Sichuan China showed up on every TV screen in the UN building. At first, I did not realize the scale of the disaster until other delegates came to ask me what I know about the event. I started reading the news on various Chinese news websites and more I learned more I was shocked by the updating headlines. One thing I immediately came in my mind was Dream Corps’ Sichuan Site. I sent out emails to the summer volunteer program committee for this emergency. Throughout that day, my inbox was filled with emails from friends, networks, and groups regarding the Earthquake and different ideas of relief efforts posted. It was that night that I did not sleep and stayed up all night watching the photos and videos about the updates from the disaster site. In the next day morning, during the general hearings meeting, all the nations on the floor started their statements by saying their sharing of grief for China and they will do anything to help relief this disaster. I found my eyes got blurry while sitting in the big conference room. It was at that moment that I felt the meaning of global citizen. We are all people on this planet, despite our differences in color, religions, believe, values, and culture, we are still after taking down our titles, human-beings living together on the third rock from the Sun. Then I realized that it was the moment in my life that I was first in a room filled with people came from all over the World. I felt very honored and empowered by the sense that I am in that room as well. When each individual came together and share the same goals of bettering the World, then every person can make a difference. On Thursday night, the draft of the Chairman’s summary was released that contained the collected information from this two week session. Within this document is the representation of all the nations in the World, their experiences in development, their calling-out of needs from the global village, and their promised commitments. And that night was the only chance each nation and each major group get to make the final comments in order to get our needs onto the paper that is going to serve as the basic structure for next year’s real policy making that going to be implemented through every nation. That night we worked till the building was shut down. We prepared our final statement to be delivered the following day. And we did deliver a powerful final comment, that we tore our speech paper and said we will give up because of so many issues we are challenged by, then we said no that is that we should do, that we as people should never give up, especially the new generations, we will never give up the good fight. It was the only time during the 2-weeks that after a statement was made, the whole world applauded. It was a very fulfilling experience in the first week. On Saturday, I got the plane and flew to Beijing.

Midway 

After arriving in Beijing , I lived at a friend’s house that is right next to the Olympic center with the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube. Her name is Tao Li and she is a third year student from UVa and a member on the Henan Team to help with the documentary project. I stayed there for almost a week before the Volunteer Training Camp starts on May 25th.

During that first week, I met with several people on behalf of Dream Corps’s projects. One of the people I met was a new member on our Board of Advisors. She is Ms. Wang, and currently she is the Head Librarian of the library at University of Illinois . She came on the board because one of our executive members – an anthropology PhD candidate at the University introduced her to our library project. Ms. Wang was born in Taiwan , and raised in America . She has been a librarian for the past 20 years and her interests are to evaluate our library from the library facility and management point of view. That day, Tao and I along with Dream Corps China representative Qian Zhang, took Ms. Wang on a tour to the library at our Beijing migrant community site. Four of us met with our local contact of the site – Mr. Wang, principal of a school for migrant children and three years working together with Dream Corps on the library for his community, and the librarian – Ms. Ceng. We also invited Mr. Zhang – a migrant worker, local community service activist with a vision to setup free libraries in migrant communities. Seven of us set down in the library for a whole afternoon and we talked until 8pm at night. The topics in the discussion are oriented specifically to the local conditions, included library management, community dynamics, library functions, reader groups, potential developments, and proposals to make better adjustments. The migrant worker community is a unique trend and society came along with China ’s economic boom and extracting labor force from agriculture for industrialization in the expansion of urban cities. They are very fluid and the people change rapidly. This makes a difference on running the library, because the readers will constantly change. However, the library can serve more functions in the migrant community, because it is at the conjunction of the urban and rural sectors. Plus the total number of people passing through this section is much larger than a rural village alone. Therefore the functions of the library will focus on the needs specific to the migrant families, especially the children and youth of the group. As for the library operations, one pleasant surprise was that last year it was difficult to imagine that a book-borrowing system will sustain in such a community because we were afraid books will just be taken without returning. However, as we tested the system in the last year, we found out that particularly in migrant communities, people know each other well and there are strong bonds within the community. Of course in addition, according to librarian Ms. Ceng was that she spent much and most of her time teaching new costumers to the library about how to take care the books, what purpose of this community library is serving, the honor code in the book-borrowing system, and our vision of “reading a book without any cost”. The library became quite popular in the past year, and many children from the nearby 5 migrant schools come to the library. There are average 20 people in the library daily, around double during the weekends. Students love to come here and do their homework, because the area is well lighted and feels more comfortable than their homes. When we discussed the library environment, Ms. Wang pointed out that she believes a library should be a place where people can come to forget things outside and simply emerge in the world of books and getting knowledge. She pointed out that the environment in the library is very crucial to the success of the library operations. Her main advice was that we need to have the library be set up as a comfortable space for children and other readers to enjoy the time they are in here. If we make the library relaxing and better than the common environment around us, then the people around will come to the library. It is then our promotion of reading and books can take on while there are people in this room. When Ms. Wang left that night, the rest of us stayed and had a bit more chat over what she suggested. Mr. Wang – the principle was shocked by her comments to bettering the library facility because he said the costs of it will bankrupt him, and he does not think our advisor knows enough of the local situations and put out such unrealistic comments. I agree with him that Ms. Wang even told us before that she does not know much of the migrant and rural communities; however, she has a lot of experiences in library’s functions and roles in a society, also operations and management. She said her points will be purely from the perspectives of the library. Later on when I communicated with Ms. Wang over emails, she said it is also good that if we set our standards to a higher level, and we tell our supporters and donors that we need better library facilities, then we give people more reasons to financially support us, because people like to know where exactly the money will go to. The conversations we had that day had one thing I feel very interesting, that is the concept that our library should be a comfortable environment where the people can come to the place to relax and ease their minds to freely enjoy the books and knowledge within. Another person I talked with in the first week was a graduate student from Taxes A and M University. His name is Haitao Guo, a friend of a member in the Dream Corps’ board, and he has done a lot of professional work with media production including photography and videos. He heard about my documentary project and was interested to help out. When we met with each other for three hours, he was initially interested only to find out more information, yet after our conversations, I tried my best to convince him to come with Henan team and be our cameraman. He hesitated a little, but he agreed to stay with us for a week at the beginning. I was very excited to have another extra hand to help with the documentary project, especially with professional knowledge. Lastly, I had dinner with Ms. Liu who I met last week at the UN conference. During that dinner I had with her and her son, we chatted over the current situations in China including economic growth, rural development, migrant workers, and Olympics. She gave me a copy of her recent published article regarding IT development in Rural China, and told me that the central government is decentralizing the power of implementing rural development, and that IT sector will be privatized to corporations that wish to develop the rural sectors. She predicted that in the next 10 years, rural China will go through dramatic information developments including internet and communication networks. When we got on the topic of the Olympics, she said she will be the director to the hotlines communications during the Olympic month. She invited me to join her in August, I was very excited yet I told her that I will have to be back in U.S. at that time. All and all, the first week in China was a good start and I already feel that there are much more awaiting for me in the rest of the summer. 

From May 25th through 27th, for three days we held a volunteer Training Camp at Beijing Institute of Education (BIE). I was the Training Manager working together with a team of six Executive members. I moved to BIE one day before the volunteers arrived. There are 35 volunteers in total for this year’s program, 3 of them (including me) are UVa students. My initial work included setup arrangements of rooms, print out training materials, prepare volunteers’ packages, and handling all the logistics during the training camp. I had two UVa students volunteer to work with me. The volunteers arrived on the 25th, and at that night we held the Team Leaders Orientation to go over financial matters, logistics, responsibility, safety, teamwork, and checklist for each team. That night was my first time meeting my Henan team mates face to face, despite having two Skype meetings before. I can tell that all of them are very excited to be here. The next two days are filled with intense training workshop sessions and a tour to our migrant community library in Beijing . The first day morning workshops focused on the bigger picture of our work that includes overview of Dream Corps and library model building with site-based planning. The afternoon workshops zoomed in to specific skills training on mobilizing community, and stakeholder analysis with site specific planning. I was the presenter on the topic of mobilizing community, and I titled it “How to Get Help from the Local Community.” I told the story of Henan from my previous two years of experiences regarding relationships with the locals and I emphasized the significance of mobilizing community is that it is the only way that we can support the locals on how to support themselves and ensure our projects sustainable from year to year. I shared with the new volunteers on the ways how to connect with locals and engaging them with our project. The second day we showed the volunteers to the migrant community library, where Mr. Wang and Ms. Ceng sat down with us on the library floor presented the library and answered questions from the volunteers. Each team took what they learned and put in their pre-departure plans for their site. In the afternoon we came back to BIE, and Qian Zhang with the migrant worker from whom I met during last week’s library visit, held the workshop on Understanding the Community. The workshop talked about the relationship between Dream Corps, library, and the community. Our group discussed the functions of the library in different societies, as well as the roles of library to support the education equity for people of rural China . Lastly, each team gave presentations on their pre-departure plans and what they hope to accomplish in the next four-five weeks. The next day, all the teams departed Beijing to go to their sites. Henan team, with a total of 8 volunteers got on the train and started on our journey. 

We were on the train for 13 hours before we arrived in Dengzhou train station – the closest city an hour from our village - “Lao Chang Ying”. The team stayed in the site for almost five weeks. Our works are divided into three sectors – the library project, education assistance, and understanding the community. For the library project, we set up a library management committee, redecorated the library, brought in new library facilities including educational wall posters, added activity rooms for reading programs, set up newsletter board outside the library, finally hired and trained our first official librarian. We also worked with the teachers to set up reading programs for all the grades, made reading program manuals and summer reading lists for the school. For education assistance, we taught music and arts, held field trips and Lao Chang Ying second annual Olympics game. For understanding the community, we have children take us to their families and conducted family visits. Lastly but not least, we put all the music and arts lessons together to hold a grand talent show for 4 hours for the whole village. 

We came back to Beijing on June 26th through 28th on a conclusion forum that each team presented their work and discussion sessions were held to evaluate library models and mobilizing communities.

Final Reflections

After the conclusion forum, the organizers of the summer program sat down and reflected upon the fresh memories of this year’s program. I think we made good progress towards the library building and understanding our site communities. I have learned from this year’s return to Henan site that showing our commitment to the library project to the local people, in addition to talking to the locals about our programs, are very important and have not been much realized before. When we started doing the library projects, we went to those local communities with our ideals and beliefs, hoping in that one month we can set up the library to run, because we thought it is very obvious and simple. However, in China and especially in rural China , those communities are very remote. There are very few outsiders to go into those places. I came to realize that social change needs time because the problems we face are deeply rooted in societies for centuries. Another important factor in social change is to understand how to engage with locals. The incentives of our actions matter a lot to the people we try to help. It is about engagement. It is about understanding that people really don’t want hand-outs, they want to make their own decisions, and they want to solve their own problems, and by engaging with them, we not only create much more dignity for them, but for us as well. We really need to become part of the process, move away from an us-and-them world, and realize it is about all of us in the world that we together want to live in and share. Finally, the social workers themselves should hold high standards for their work, and we have to be trustworthy to the locals. Social change means that we are asking a lot of people to change the things they do, and the ethical fiber of those who work toward the change is very important because you must be able to earn trust from the locals to make a difference. 

My dream is to become a social entrepreneur and find ways to solve the more pressing issues in society. I strongly believe that education is the foundation that can bring people out of all the societal problems including poverty, inequality, and justice. Education provides knowledge and opportunities, and when people are better informed, they can make better choices. They can learn better skills, they can get better opportunities, and they can achieve higher goals. However, education should be balanced between academic knowledge and moral character development. Education will give people knowledge and power, but also it should teach people how to respect each other and be responsible as a part of society. I want to sincerely thank the Parents Committee for supporting me on my quest to develop a career in the public sector. I learned from this summer, that one needs determination, commitment, and patience in order to take firm steps toward achieving goals. And for social development, it is including development that is the bettering for the underprivileged people.