To understand her philanthropy, Tien Ching says one needs to dig into her past.
When she was 13, Tien used to study at an elite junior high school with daughters of Chinese leaders and dreamt of becoming a journalist when the Cultural Revolution started in 1966. For a seventh grader, not being able to continue her education during those tumultuous years, Tien says, seemed like the final chapter of her unwritten book.
In the following years, Tien’s life story traversed from western China’s Gansu Province to Beijing and then Vancouver, but she never had a chance to continue her education.
But 37 years later, the teenager who had quietly packed her dreams had an epiphany – to provide girls in rural China a chance of higher education, something she didn’t have.
In 2005, Tien set up a charity and called it Educating Girls of Rural China (EGRC). It was the beginning of a mission that now has a cohort of 400 career women from Gansu and other provinces.
“It was a no brainer,” she says, reflecting on the struggles. “I felt I couldn’t be there. There was no hope.”
She heard harrowing stories from her mother, who travelled to remote parts of the province, about girls as young as 13 already married, some with children. They were devoid of any educational opportunities or career-oriented future.
“I was always determined to get out of there, continue my education,” she says explaining a “complicated story” of returning to Beijing eight years later.
However, complications in her residency status meant she couldn’t sit for the university entrance exam in Beijing. Later, she married the son of a family friend living in Canada and emigrated there in 1983. But, family responsibilities meant she made a “conscious decision” not to pursue higher education.
But years later, while watching her daughter perform at a UNICEF fundraising event for girls’ education — it was called Go Girls — her thoughts travelled back to Gansu.
“That evening I remembered the girls in Gansu and my life there,” she says pensively. “I thought of the meaning of opportunity … if they had chances, the girls there would be as smart as my daughter.”
For many young women, whose lives Tien has transformed, she is more than a “sponsor” supporting their college tuition – she’s a mentor, friend and part of their family now.
Li Fangxia, who graduated from Northwest A&F University in Shaanxi Province with an EGRC scholarship, says Tien “gave us the life we had never imagined.”
“Every time I meet her, I feel empowered,” Li says. “She’s like a goddess.”
Coming from a family weighed by financial problems, Li says she was always expected to be the helping hand in the farms. Also, her brother’s education was a priority; their parents couldn’t afford her university fees too.
In parts of rural China, sons are still given preferential treatment while women are discouraged from higher education, obligated to help the family. Li says she had “given up.”
This is when the 25-year-old heard about Tien’s charity and applied. After an application and an interview, her request was approved.
“I am the first girl in the countryside to go to university and work in Beijing,” Li says. “Other girls, they gave up studies and married very early.”
And in that process, women like Li are also helping shift traditional attitudes and emboldening other women in her village of Quan’erwan – she helps her family financially, pays her brother’s university tuition and is an ambassador for pushing girls’ education.
“I am a good example,” Li says with pride. “They may now rethink that girls deserve to go to college and they can do anything that boys can, even better.”
When Tien talks about her past, she still sounds emotional. She is in her 60s and not “bitter anymore” but says a sense of regret still hangs in her subconsciousness – until she sees one of her graduates.
“When I look at these girls, I see them fulfilling something I didn’t have the opportunity to finish: education,” says Tien, who is busy attending networking events in Beijing and also shared her story at TEDx talk program. “Mostly, I see change in them and that encourages me. I see a part of myself in them.”
In these 11 years, Tien’s philanthropy has become an integral part of many success stories. The 6,000 yuan (865 US dollars) yearly scholarship to individuals from her charity goes beyond its monetary value, providing important life lessons to the beneficiaries.
The women Tien helped have gone to become teachers, entrepreneurs, and more so independent thinkers and leaders, in China and Canada.
“I want to help China generate the next generation of female leaders,” Tien says. “I want them to make them dream bigger. When I see my girls, I see that in them.”