Statistically, Dajun Hou had a 5% chance of attending college. Sixty percent of his classmates, the children of migrant workers in rural southern China, would drop out of the education system before high school.
When Hou came to study at Duke University in 2003, he knew the odds had been stacked against him, and he wasn’t alone; Hou was among some 60 million rural children denied access to China’s urban public schools, where a privileged few produced some of the top test scores in the world.
At Duke, Hou found other students—some Chinese and some American, studying everything from public policy to anthropology—who wanted to address the education gap.
While their residency status would prevent rural students from living, working and learning in China’s cities, Hou and his team came up with a plan to bring new resources to the under-funded schools of the countryside.
“Some of us, like me, came from rural China,” Hou said, “so we were emotionally attached to this idea. We talked a lot about inequality in education, and then we thought, ‘Maybe we could do something about it.’”
That they did. They founded Dream Corps, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building libraries and encouraging reading habits in pastoral communities across China, originally funded by Duke’s Asian Pacific Studies Institute.
Starting with the New Century Library, housed in a kindergarten for the children of migrant workers, Dream Corps supplied books and trained instructors in curating additional reading materials and organizing community learning activities.
“It became a base for learning in that community,” Hou said. Over the past decade, Hou, who has served as chair of the Dream Corps board for most of those years, has had the opportunity to watch that community grow.
“A lot of the kids who started with us ten years ago have been greatly impacted by the library. Some of them have enrolled in the best universities in China, and this used to be impossible in that kind of rural area.”
Since building its first library, Dream Corps has established between six and 12 libraries each year. In addition to a Duke chapter, nine other universities around the world have launched chapters in which student volunteers help raise funds and establish libraries and reading programs in ten villages across China.
“This has been a life-changing experience for me,” Hou said, noting that he has witnessed the education gap in China begin to close. “It has made me wonder, what is a meaningful way to help other people? What should my attitude toward life be like? I’ve become a more caring person watching this organization grow.”