An Engineer Finds Education His True Calling through FACES: a Conversation with Henry Shi

In autumn, Henry Shi (FACES ’11) talked to Elaine Ng (FACES Beida) and Bruce Wong (FACES Stanford) on Peking University's campus.

In autumn, Henry Shi (FACES ’11) talked to Elaine Ng (FACES Beida) and Bruce Wong (FACES Stanford) on Peking University's campus.

Actually FACES itself has been a very good educational experience for me. When you gather so many passionate young people from all walks of life in the same room, you are at the springboard of a variety of high-impact possibilities… Then from this onesingle room of dialogues and conversations, you start to imagine how in better, different ways people from two countries can interact and eventually influence future relations on a national level.”

- Henry Shi, FACES ‘11


The Interviewee: Henry (Zhaolei) Shi, was born and raised in Xi'an. Having been educated for four years in elementary school, Henry found education systems in the U.S. and China distinctively different. After participating as the co-president for FACES chapter at Fudan University and connecting with awesome FACES people (including his current boss) from both countries and all walks of life, he found his truecalling in education. Later on he went back to U.S. for an education master at Harvard, and now he works for REAP (Rural Education Action Program).

The Interviewers: Elaine Ng is a FACES Beida Officer majoring in Law at Peking University; Bruce Wong, FACES Stanford Officer, is a graduate student in East Asian studies at Stanford University.

Prologue: Education in China is a complex and important issue with countless moving parts, and Henry Shi advocates tackling it pragmatically with effective, quantitative and scientific approaches. No wonder, as this former electrical engineering student discovered in his later university years the appeal of working with people rather than machines. We met up with Henry in a cozy cafe on Peking University's campus to glean his insights on education as well as dig deeper into his transition from engineering to education. Fortunately for us, Henry gave us the full story of how he rediscovered education as his passion, blossoming from the youthful curiosity he inevitably fostered as he went through both Chinese and US school environments. Throughout our interview, Henry weaves in again and again the significance that FACES had on sparking his passion for education, emphasizing the amazing people he met through FACES that helped shape his career path. And as a word of advice, he passed down the two lessons he learned in FACES: passion and self-discovery. 

Henry's Good Old Days Back in FACES

Elaine: Hi Henry, first how about a brief self-introduction?

Henry: My name is Henry. I was born and grew up in Xi'an and continued on to do my undergrad at Fudan University in Shanghai. During college I majored in Electrical Engineering and had many experiences running student organizations such as FACES. It got me thinking about what kind of career trajectory I want to follow. It soon became clear to me that it would involve education, so through various channels I got in touch with people who were doing education in the U.S. The FACES conference in particular offered me the opportunity to connect with people from very different backgrounds. I applied for a master's degree in education at Harvard and then joined a Stanford-based research team to work on education issues in China, mainly by seeing what kinds of policies work through randomized controlled experiments.

E: Any good memories from FACES that you would like to share?

H: Sure. Actually, I met my former roommate and current boss in FACES. FACES is where youcan connect with remarkable talented people who also care about similar issues, like US-China relations. As for the conference itself, I remembered that the first lecture I attended at FACES was given by my current boss at Stanford. He was a very motivating, energetic speaker. The presentation was about food security in China and how important it was, which I still remember to this day. It was him who got me seriously interested in education, my current working field.

Bruce: So it seems that you initially had an interest in education and FACES enabled it to “blossom”?

H: Yes, that's an accurate description. I think FACES helped in two ways. One is that I was exposed to a lot of different career aspirations by participating in FACES. It was an eye opening experience to see how different people could develop their interests and become really good at them. It made me think about what I could do to embrace my passion from my earlier years. The other aspect is that the people I met during the conferences. For example, I met my friend who introduced me to my current job during the FACES conference and made a strong connection, and he eventually showed me the way to start a career in education. For me, FACES is a place where I found the topics I'm actually interested in — one of them being education — as well as the people passionately engaged in them. Overall, I would say that FACES has changed my life trajectory in many ways, and I probably wouldn't be the person I am today without FACES. There's just so much room for the “blossoming” to happen, and I think I'm only one among the many whose lives are affected by connecting with this group. 

B: From your perspective, what can FACES do to impact on the education front, whether it's in China or in America? How can the mission of FACES be aligned with educational causes?

H: Actually FACES itself has been a very good educational experience for me. When you gather so many passionate young people from all walks of life in the same room, you are at the springboard of a variety of high-impact possibilities. Although we have different backgrounds, we share common themes in our lives, and people are so open-minded here that we can really put all those differences and misunderstandings in perspective. Then from this one single room of dialogues and conversations, you start to imagine how in better, different ways people from two countries can interact and eventually influence future relations on a national level. So in a way, my education experience at FACES to drive home is like seeing a mirror image of yourself in people who grew up in different countries, then you talk and empathize and understand. So in my eyes, FACES's mission aligns very well with education, to seek common ground within young people from two countries and create measures to ensure mutual understanding. This should continue to grow.


Electrical Engineering and Education are not that Far Apart

E: I would like to know more about how you were initially interested in education. What was the “seed”? And what motivated you to transition from an electrical engineering major to a professional researcher on education? 

H: I think my interest in education came from my early childhood experience. During my elementary school years in Xi'an I attended an urban Chinese school that mainly taught through rote memorization and discipline. Then my family moved to the U.S., and we lived in California for four years; certainly, the education there was very different, and I began to ponder the differences between two systems and how they were producing very different people. 

But what really sparked my interest was the educational culture shock of readjusting to the Chinese system when I moved back. That process got me quite interested in questions like what education should be like and what kind of education is best for people. Even though education in U.S. wasn't geared to students coming out of the Chinese system, I benefited tremendously. This further heightened my interest and got me thinking seriously about a career in education, which to me means a combination of two things: one is that you have to be passionate, and the other component is that you should be able to excel. I have been interested in education early on, but never knew it was aviable career before FACES, but after it I began to think that, well, first it’s doable now, second I'm interested, and third it's a viable career option that I could be pretty good at. It was then I decided to switch to education, finished my master in education at Harvard andstart a career in it.

B: So now as a researcher and scholar, what sort of social impact do you seek to make? What's your call to education in China?

H: I think the social impact we want to create is superb, strategic policies. A simple example is our experiments with children in rural China. We found out a lot of rural children are anemic, meaning they lack red blood cell efficiency, because they don't have enough iron in their blood, which negatively affects their learning. We did one particular experiment and found out that by giving kids one vitamin pill per day correcting this health deficiency, you can adequately raise their test scores - and this doesn’t cost much. And so one of our policy briefs to the Chinese State Council describes how children in rural areas should receive better nutritional support and suggests that the government should pay special attention to the seemingly trivial problems that are actually important in trying to solve education issues in rural China. Through our efforts, the government now supplies free nutritious lunches to many rural regions in China. So that's one kind of social impacts. Obviously there's a lot more to be done than just handing rural kids vitamin pills, but one step atime we are making progress. 

So I would say more scientific policy-makingis my call to education. There needs to be much more thorough thinking and careful experimentation. When you make national policy, you really have to try to figure out experimentally what kind of impact the changesare going to bring about. Also, government and different parties involved in the education system have to rethink their roles. There are certain types of education the government is not the best fit to provide, for instance, migrant education. Now huge population of children is coming from rural areas into cities and many currently can't receive education there. Educating people properly is crucial for China’s future, and the government, at least now, has not realized the severity of this problem. So I think more rethinking of the services and roles of the government should be the next step. 

B: Very compelling call. So you are more focused on policy as a top-down vehicle for delivering social impact?

H: I think a part of policy-making is to know what you can and can't do; obviously not everything can be solved through policy, but when it’s time to make policy, you want to do it right. This also applies to policy-making from government's perspective. Even though my focus is policy, the idea is more about finding effective forms of policy so that we can concentrate time and resources in approaching the “unreachablecorners of education” and make scientific-based educational decisions.


Passion and Self-discovery – Henry's Keys to Finding Your True Calling

B: Your professional and personal trajectory after FACES seem to resonate with the idea of “do what you love”. From your own experiences in both Chinese and American educational environments, any final words of advice for the current generation of Chinese college students, who are also faced with hard life and career choices?

H: Well from my experience, you're in trouble if you don't like anything. This is more of a “Chinese” kind of problem: many Chinese college students' education experiences have been very disciplined - when you're managed in this fashion, you begin to internalize a specific set of interests prescribed by society and lose some in various other things. Yes, so I would say if there's nothing that makes you want to wake up early in the morning, nothing really makes you tick, you are in trouble. For any kind of career, you need to dedicate a certain level of effort to be excellent.

For me personally, it was essential to explore, and getting to know people who are working in different fields through FACES has been tremendously rewarding in that it has shown me how to combine your passions with what is actually viable in terms of career. Just to be in the vicinity of people doing cool stuff and to learn from them is adequately beneficial. I'll say, one of the best ways to explore more is to join groups like FACES where you can talk to and engage with people at your own age, speak languages of different disciplines but are surprisingly like-minded. And through learning from these people, you dare imagine how your life and career trajectory will possibly evolve in different ways. So my main piece of advice is to combine this special kind of “learning” with your passion and necessary skills, then you probably can make very good career decisions in the long run.

Alumni Interview Program: In February 2014, we started the Alumni Interview Program. Our Alumni Affairs staff have since conducted ten interviews with alumni in Beijing and the Bay Area. We hope that these interviews will inspire younger generations of FACES community and Chinese and American college students at large to pursue their dreams and make their unique impact on U.S.-China relations.