On May 26, He Jiang will become the first-ever Chinese speaker to give the commencement speech at Harvard University’s graduation ceremony.
Born to parents with little schooling, He grew up in an impoverished village in central China’s Hunan province. He excelled in school from a young age and eventually was able to complete his bachelor’s degree at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, Anhui province, and his Ph.D. at Harvard University. He is now in the post-doctoral program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He spoke about his journey from a Hunan village to an Ivy-League university, the role of his parents in that journey, and the differences in the education systems of China and the U.S.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sixth Tone: What was your life like when you were growing up?
He Jiang: When I was a child, our standard of living was lower than average in our village, and life was tough for my family. When other children were playing after class, my brother and I were at home studying or helping with the farm work. We learned how to do all the farm work, like plowing fields, at a very young age.
As children growing up in rural China, we always knew that there were many uncertainties about our future, and that there was going to be no way out unless we studied hard. My father always told us, “If you don’t study hard and leave this village, you will be farming your whole life.” I had experienced enough to know how hard it is to work in the fields, and being able to study at school was a much more enjoyable thing to do.
Sixth Tone: Would you say then that you wouldn’t have made it to Harvard without your parents’ support?
He Jiang: Most Chinese parents know that education is important, yet few have the time or energy to really focus on their children’s education. And many parents work away from home.
My family was a bit different. Before I left home for high school, my father only left the village for three months in a year, and my mother was always at home doing farm work. So they spent quite a bit of time with us and supervised our studies.
My father had very high expectations of us, compared to other parents. He always wanted us to be the best. I believe the high expectations I have for myself are influenced by his approach to education.
My parents would save money they normally spent on food to buy books for me, and though the furniture in our home was old and falling apart, they didn’t buy new things until I finally entered college. My family hardly had any money left after paying tuition and living expenses for me and my brother when I was at high school.
Sixth Tone: What is the biggest difference between universities in the U.S. and in China?
He Jiang: I have been in the U.S. for about six years. In general, I think that American university culture is very nurturing — it encourages students to be creative and independent.
In China, teachers are more authoritative, while in America, even acclaimed professors like Nobel Prize winners treat students like friends. They encourage you to try different things, because unlike the education I received in primary and middle school, many problems do not have a standard answer, and so you need to explore other possibilities.
Sixth Tone: In what way has getting an American education changed you?
He Jiang: In China, we judge a student’s performance based on test scores, but in America, a student’s performance in class and their ability to answer questions by thinking critically are the important standards.
Many of my Chinese friends I met in the U.S. needed a long time to adjust to the new culture, as Chinese are generally shy and have a hard time expressing themselves. Our American and European classmates would speak whenever they had an opinion or a question, but Chinese students tend to think a lot before uttering a word. They worry about whether they can clearly express their opinions in English, or whether their opinions are mature enough to be brought to the table.
When I first arrived at Harvard, I did not have much confidence. Seeing so many outstanding students on campus, I had doubts about why I was accepted by Harvard in the first place. But my anxiety pushed me to change. Instead of just hanging out with my Chinese friends, I forced myself to participate in events and discussions held by Americans. Hoping to better understand Harvard’s culture, and the reasons why it has fertile soil for cultivating world leaders, I applied to be a tutor in my second year. The program helped me understand the culture of the university, and the experience also helped me better prepare my commencement speech.
Sixth Tone: What do you intend to do with all that you have learnt throughout your education?
He Jiang: After I came to Harvard, I learned a lot of cutting-edge research. Then I started to think, “Instead of being published in academic journals, our research should be practically applied to a wider society.”
Students I met at Harvard have also inspired me a lot. For example, I knew a sophomore whose grandparent had Alzheimer’s. In the U.S. a lot of Alzheimer’s patients stay in nursing homes, but they get lonely there. With around 10 other volunteers, this student founded an NGO whose purpose was to visit Alzheimer’s patients every weekend. Over the past four years, they have been reaching out to professors and companies, and now their network covers most locations in the U.S.
How to apply academic research to social improvement is a big question, and there is a lot more that should be done. My speech aims to give students a take-home message, and to inspire them to think about this problem.
Sixth Tone: Do you think China’s gaokao, or college entrance exam, is creating a more egalitarian society?
He Jiang: I know there are a lot of problems with the gaokao. For example, it inhibits students’ creativity. But if there had been no gaokao, I would not have been able to get this far. I spoke with an economics professor at Harvard and told him of my experience. I remember him saying, “In America, a student with a similar background to yours probably would not end up at Harvard.”
Sixth Tone: As China’s society has developed, do you think rural education has improved compared to 20 years ago?
He Jiang: Actually, I think things are getting worse in a way. Rural China is trying to catch up on education, but cities are progressing at a much faster pace. Students in cities have more resources and choices.
Many rural families now have less faith in the Chinese notion of “changing one’s fate through study.” Witnessing this change in mentality, I am torn. On the one hand, it is true that university students might end up worse financially than a migrant worker, once their family has spent so much money on tuition. Furthermore, college students from rural backgrounds often lack the resources and communication skills to compete with those who grow up in cities. Yet on the other hand, I still believe that the impact of knowledge on a person transcends money and material things, as it will influence your life attitude and broaden your horizons — or else you might never be able to change either your own fate or that of future generations.
But still, technology is helping rural dwellers to access information from the outside world. Now, as the Internet has become more accessible, it is much easier for rural students to understand what is happening out in the world. To my surprise, the news that I am going to give a commencement speech at Harvard quickly reached my village, and many people there have been spreading the news on [messaging app] WeChat.
(Header image: He Jiang at a laboratory at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, MIT, U.S., May 9, 2016. Courtesy of He Jiang)