Before Sara Lam ’03, a native of Hong Kong, completed an elementary education major at the University of Minnesota, Morris, (UMM) she knew classroom teaching would not be in her future. In fact, Lam considered dropping out of the program, but her UMM professors encouraged her to finish. They recognized in her a quiet but exuberant passion for children and a profound awareness of social inequities. Lam’s UMM degree became the groundwork for studying international education policy at Harvard University and then co-founding the Rural China Education Foundation, the manifestation of a lifetime desire to help children.
Lam’s mother grew up in St. Paul, so she knew Minnesota through summer holiday excursions. She was introduced to UMM by Jen Anderson ’01 and Chaz Rice ’00 who through the UMM English Language Teaching Assistant Program (ELTAP) taught in her Hong Kong high school. The two UMMers shared their enthusiasm for their college. When it was time to choose a college, she chose UMM.
Opportunities beyond the classroom deepened Lam’s desire to work for social change through education. She herself became an ELTAP participant, teaching English in Czech Republic. She completed a teaching practicum in Chicago and at the Tiospa Zina Tribal School in Agency Village, South Dakota, and she student taught in Chile through the Global Student Teaching Program.
“Through these opportunities,” said Lam, “I began to fully realize the relationship between education and social justice. The typical view of education is ‘work hard and improve your life,’ but I’ve experienced first hand that it is not that simple. Seeing school kids going to homes with drugs, alcohol, and poverty confirmed for me the need for a more nuanced view of education in disadvantaged communities. Education doesn’t solve all the problems. Sometimes, change is needed in a whole system.”
After completing a master of international education policy at Harvard, Lam earned a fellowship to work in rural education in China. Even though she grew up in a bordering city, she didn’t know much about mainland China when she began her research with Diane Geng, a fellow Harvard graduate who earned a master of arts in education in human development and psychology.
“We witnessed difficulties and disparities in different rural areas, a very structured curriculum without individual student focus,” shared Lam. “But on the other hand, we saw rural teachers who despite the difficulties were passionate about their work and really cared about their students. They made extra efforts to shape the curriculum, although they are encouraged not to do so. There’s a great need in rural China but also a great hope because of those wonderful teachers.”
The two women observed a disconnect between typical curriculum in rural schools and the educational needs of individual students and the greater community, which they believe directly affects the staggering drop out rate. Only 20 percent of rural students attend high school; 80 percent do not continue after middle school. “They lose hope, and they don’t see the value of education,” stated Lam.
In response to their fieldwork and research, Lam and Geng, along with other young Chinese scholars and professionals, established the Rural China Education Foundation (RCEF). The nonprofit organization’s mission is to “promote education for people in rural China that empowers them to improve their lives and their communities.” In 2007, RCEF received a substantial grant from Echoing Green, a noted philanthropic organization with the vision to “spark social change by identifying, funding, and supporting some of the world’s most extraordinary emerging social entrepreneurs and the organizations they launch.” The grant allowed Lam and Geng to try new approaches and establish in depth projects. “With the support of Echoing Green, we can really help in a hands on way, become more connected, more responsive,” shared Lam.
RCEF’s strategies support rural teachers and assist in creating innovative, relevant curriculum for rural students. Current projects include a teaching fellows program called the Integrative Rural Education Program, a summer volunteer program, and a rural teachers network. Integral to each project is RCEF’s objective to integrate education and rural society, for students to become involved in their communities.
“One of the projects I worked on was a course for kids who dropped out of middle school,” said Lam. “The students received money for a community-related project to purchase books for the village library. They had to agree to buy books that the villagers would be interested in reading, and they had to figure out how to be fair to all the members of the village. The students created survey forms then made their way around the village to talk to people about their wishes.”
It was an eye opening experience for Lam because, at first, it appeared that the project might fail. Community members were wary of the young people knocking on their doors. The students felt marginalized.
But the project turned around. With coaching, the students assessed the situation and regrouped. Shares Lam: “The students needed to chat with survey participants, tell them about the project, and share their excitement. The kids got motivated, and the villagers saw them in a new light.”
While their educational venture provided hands on academic learning — library skills, computer skills, statistics, spreadsheets, and accounting — Lam notes that the students’ most important accomplishments are less tangible. “This project helped the students build confidence in dealing with others,” she said. “They are better communicators, more confident in their futures. They figured out how to get things done in their community.”
While creating RCEF collaborations in China, Lam also networks with UMM faculty members. Currently, she conducts comparative research with Pam Solvie, associate professor of elementary education, who studies international perspectives on education.