Written by Yifu Dong, Ash Center Research Assistant
Born and raised in a rural village in central China’s Henan Province, Yuheng Wen MPA ’19, dropped out of middle school at age 13. Now, two decades later, he is at Harvard exploring ways to promote education equality in China in part with the support of the Ash Center’s Dalio Scholars program, which provides scholarships to graduate students from China who are proven leaders in philanthropy or who demonstrate clear philanthropy sector leadership potential.
At a young age, Wen experienced tremendous hardship at the unlucky end of the inequity spectrum of China’s education system. In middle school, he suffered not only from harsh living conditions and hunger but also from a severe shortage of educational resources. As a result, Wen had little interest in learning. When he first began working to support his family, he had no regrets about leaving school.
For five years, Wen held a job at a construction company in the northeastern port city of Tianjin, and worked his way up from wall painter and welder to small project manager. “But without an education, I felt that the ceiling for my career was quite low,” Wen recalls. Thus began his quest for a better education.
At 18, Wen enrolled in a new high school near his hometown thanks to a new government policy encouraging the establishment of privately-funded high schools, which effectively expanded secondary education in the country. After completing high school, he successfully tested into a university in Beijing, finishing the four-year finance degree in just three years. Wen came to the United States for graduate school in finance after a year working at Citibank in Beijing.
Along the way, Wen never stopped reflecting on his own educational experiences and how he might help to improve those of others. Upon finishing his graduate degree, he joined AMIDEAST, a Washington, DC-based education nonprofit. Wen also participated in the nonprofit Ai Xin China where he supported rural students at Chinese universities. Having experienced the difficulties of adapting to life in cities firsthand, he says, “As important as donations are, mentorship is equally crucial. Rural students not only have to pay college tuition but also need guidance on adapting to life in the city and career planning.”
Before coming to Harvard Kennedy School, Wen cofounded Ed Excites, an education startup that provides career development advising and graduate school application support to Chinese students from low-income backgrounds at modest cost. “Such a business approach, in my view, is more sustainable than a nonprofit approach that survives at the mercy of donors,” Wen says. “Similarly sustainable are policy approaches, which can alter the lives of many people, just like the policy that made my high school education possible.”
At Harvard, Wen is capitalizing on the abundant resources offered by the Kennedy School, the Graduate School of Education, and the Business School, exploring the intersections among their respective disciplines. As a student fellow here at the Ash Center, Wen has enjoyed guidance and mentoring from its staff and faculty, which has helped him form the outline for fieldwork in rural Chinese schools. In his view, understanding the specific challenges facing rural Chinese students is crucial to any work addressing education inequality. “I certainly do not want to be didactic,” Wen says. “I just want to hear people’s stories and share my own. I want to use myself as an example to tell those children and parents that spending time in school can be worthwhile.”
Currently, Wen is helping to promote the introduction of a General Educational Development model in China, which would allow people, after self-guided study, to test for high school certificates and subsequently be eligible for university entrance examinations. “Even if I don’t get any credit, and even if the program will only help a few thousand people instead of millions, the effort will still be worth it,” Wen says. “I don’t crave for one big leap at a time, but I do want to move a step closer in the right direction every single day.”