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"Knowledge can change people's destiny"

MAY . 14 2021
Peking University, May 14: From working as a security guard at prestigious Peking University to serving as head of a vocational secondary school in Shanxi province, Zhang Juncheng knows too well the ability education has to change people's lives.

Zhang Juncheng answers a student's questions during a regular check on the pupils' studies at the vocational secondary school he established in Shanxi province. [Photo by Wu Liuhong/Provided to China Daily]

He shot to fame as the first security guard at PKU to earn a vocational degree from the university after he completed a self-taught program. More than 500 security guards at the university have followed in his footsteps, with PKU or other universities admitting them. Twelve have even obtained master's degrees.

Born in 1976, Zhang, the youngest of seven children of an impoverished family in a village in Shanxi's Changzhi city, said his memory of the village is that "it was even more impoverished and ragged than others around".

He abandoned his education after finishing middle school as the family was unable to afford his tuition, and he tried different jobs.

Determined to leave his hometown and see the wider world, Zhang signed with a Beijing security company in 1994 when it came to Changzhi to hire workers. After receiving a few weeks of training, 18-year-old Zhang became a security guard at PKU.

"Wearing the uniform, checking identities at the west gate of the university, answering phone calls and watching visitors taking photos and students and professors walking in and out, I thought it was the best job in the world," he said.

Zhang's superiors took note of his good work. He was promoted and became head of security guards at the west gate after he finished the three-month probation period.

However, life as a security guard was not easy, he said.

Once, he blocked several foreigners from entering campus because they did not have proof of registration or school ID cards. Not knowing each other's language, both parties initially refused to give in, but eventually the foreigners left, giving him a thumbs-down to show their anger.

Frustrated and humiliated, Zhang reflected on the incident and thought the incident could have been avoided if he had known English. So, he started to use his spare time to learn English and tried to read the language when there was no one around at night.
Zhang studies on the campus of Peking University in 1997. [Photo provided to China Daily]

His efforts were noticed by Cao Yan, one of the school's English professors, who was moved by his determination but not so impressed with his pronunciation.

The professor gave him permits to take free English training classes and encouraged him to sit for the college entrance exam for adults' continuing studies. She also talked with the administrator of the security team to make adjustments to his shift so he could have time to take the course.

"I do not want you to feel grateful to me, I need you to take concrete action and study hard," Cao told Zhang.

He started to take the English courses and later decided to take the college entrance exam. He tried to enroll in the university's law school.

"Between work and preparing for the exam, I often ran between classes, and I was too busy with work to eat," Zhang said. "But I didn't feel it was tough. On the contrary, it was quite fulfilling."

However, he did not pass the exam, so he began to prepare for the self-taught exam to obtain a higher vocational degree. He needed to pass 13 courses to get the degree.

"Although I could not get a bachelor's degree, I believed as long as I worked harder, I could get a vocational degree," Zhang said.

He often stayed up late to study. When the dormitory's lights went out, he continued to read by flashlight. "I only slept for three to four hours a day. It was tough, but it was nothing that I could not handle," he said.

In 1998, he passed all the required tests and earned his vocational degree from PKU. A year later, he decided to return to his hometown in Changzhi, where he worked at several vocational schools.

In 2015, Zhang decided to establish a vocational secondary school with four of his friends. His goal is to provide opportunities to more students who failed to enter high school.

Zhang Juncheng answers a student's questions during a regular check on the pupils' studies at the vocational secondary school he established in Shanxi province. [Photo by Wu Liuhong/Provided to China Daily]

He hopes they can master a trade and become excellent craftsmen. Most importantly, he wants his students to keep in mind that knowledge shapes destiny.

Many students go to vocational secondary schools because their grades are not good enough to go to high school, and it is not easy to get them interested in studying, Zhang said.

A student once told Zhang that he wanted to quit school and would rather do anything than study. Zhang took the student near a dumpster and they started a garbage-sorting race.

Before long, the student told Zhang that he wanted to go back to the classroom.

Zhang has asked teachers at the school to fully get to know all their students, including their personalities, hobbies, habits and even the meaning of their names.

Many students who lack good grades often get frustrated with learning, so teachers need to give them extra attention and care, he said.

"Sometimes, students want to quit school to start working. There is no way I would let it happen. Knowledge can change people's destiny, and I am a good example," he said. "When I was a security guard at PKU, the teachers there offered me great help, which has changed my life. I wanted to offer more help to students who are just like me."

Source: China Daily