Cheng Qian ’14: Fostering Social and Emotional Health Among Chinese Youth
After her first year as a molecular biology student in Missouri, Cheng Qian ’14 returned to her home country of China. Her plan was to work and visit with extended family for a semester before continuing college. Instead, she found herself reshaping her career trajectory.
While Cheng was in China, her grandmother, a rural doctor and member of the Committee for the Education of the Next Generation, asked for her help with the committee’s research on China’s “Left Behind Children,” an unfamiliar phenomenon for Cheng, who spent most of her youth in the United States.
Cheng employed research skills and methods she had acquired through her biology program, and went to work. Completing surveys and gathering data in the local community, Cheng says, “opened my eyes to the problem.”
She quickly learned the magnitude of China’s Left Behind Children. “This is a group of children—actually 62 million by now—who are left behind by their parents because their parents serve as migrant workers in the cities,” Cheng explains. These children are left in the care of other family members, mainly grandparents, who are often illiterate field laborers. Some are left to fend for themselves.
“There’s not much time for supervision or knowing how to guide these children into society. So, we see extreme rates of mental health issues, depression, anxiety, dropping out of school, abuse and even human trafficking,” she says.
Cheng wanted to help. “As someone who did the research, I was astounded by the results,” she recalls. Her first order of business? “I transferred to Gordon, switched my major to psychology, and the rest is history.”
That history involved co-founding a non-profit organization called Global Children’s Vision to address the crisis of Left Behind Children. Cheng and her classmate Becca Berman ’14 received funding through the 2014 Social Venture Challenge for their endeavor. Since graduating from Gordon, Cheng transferred the reins to new leadership while she completed her Ed.M. at Harvard Graduate School of Education. During her year-long degree program, she served as an early education policy intern for the Massachusetts Department of Education. And she founded another organization: Sparkifi.
Sparking Change through Outdoor Learning
“Sparkifi follows a social entrepreneurship model,” says Cheng, bringing Chinese children and their parents to the U.S. for experiential outdoor camps designed to strengthen familial bonds and communication, and improve the mental health trajectory for children. “Taking families out of their normal environment and away from social pressures helps build community and introspection. Also, being in nature contributes so much to their development,” Cheng explains.
Sparkifi ran its pilot program this past summer through Gordon College’s La Vida Center for Outdoor Education and Leadership. The goal, says Cheng, was “to spark curiosity and creativity in the wonder of nature and alongside the people around them” through ropes course challenges, workshops and team- and leadership-building exercises.
“Cheng Qian has a unique vision for connecting Chinese children with their parents through the use of adventure experiences,” says La Vida Director Rich Obenschain. “The kids, ages 6 to 10, were exposed to new challenges on the La Vida challenge course. When parents saw their children overcoming these obstacles, they developed respect, confidence and deeper relationships.”
Cheng adds, “Within the first couple days, we were already seeing huge changes in their ability for self-regulation and emotion identification, which are so important for mental health. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”
The camps are open to any Chinese families. “I have learned that the needs of Chinese children—as they relate to the worlds of education and mental health—extend well beyond the Left Behind Children,” Cheng says. “I see a lot of need even among middle and upper class families.” Cheng hopes to expand camp opportunities eventually, and create scholarship programs to continue reaching the Left Behind Children who originally inspired her.