After learning about struggles facing pupils in poor, remote areas, 22-year-old decides she can make a difference
Liu Jiaying (wearing glasses) distributes gifts to students at Shaba primary school in Qianxi county, Guizhou province while visiting the school for the launch ceremony of the first Flying Box project in June, 2015. Provided to CHINA DAILY
Liu Jiaying says she does not normally stand out from the crowd, but the 22-year-old student from Shenyang Architecture University separated herself from the pack when she designed and built a portable dormitory for pupils in a mountainous area of Guizhou province.
The dorm, which Liu calls the "Flying Box", was inspired by journalist-turned-philanthropist Deng Fei in 2015. Deng's dream was to offer safe and comfortable accommodation to students whose homes were far from their schools in poor mountainous areas and save them from long laborious commutes on foot along slippery and steep mountain paths.
Liu helped make Deng's dream a reality and students have welcomed the first of the new temporary dorms.
"Thanks to the Flying Box, I don't have to walk for two hours along the mountain trail to school every day. I can't remember how many times I fell over into the thorn bushes next to the path in the cold black morning," said Wang Ting, a 10-year-old pupil at Shaba primary school in Qianxi county.
Wang is among many children who have to walk a long way to school, thanks to the closure of a lot of small rural schools in depopulated areas. Children who want to avoid the long walks can usually stay in a school dormitory, but these tend to be very humble, and are difficult places in which to feel at home.
Deng thought such dorms could be a whole lot better.
Liu and students of the Shaba primary school on an excursion in Qianxi county. Provided to CHINA DAILY
Liu said she didn't know how bad things were until she heard Deng make a speech on her campus late in 2014.
"I always knew I wanted to volunteer for public service during my college days but I wanted to do something different to everyone else and not just do something like visiting nursing homes," said Liu, who was a sophomore at the time.
She asked Deng how she could help and Deng said she should design a portable dormitory.
"That delighted me," she said. "I realized I could use my knowledge of architecture to help these children. Deng only gave me 15 days to design a 40-person dormitory that could be easily transported and replicated."
After enlisting the help of several seniors at her university, Liu designed a two-storey modular dormitory with bedrooms, bathrooms, public spaces and a room for a resident counselor. The dormitory was designed to be solar powered and have wireless network access.
"The design was not the difficult part," Liu said.
"The difficulties came flooding in when we tried to use crowdfunding, find manufacturers, and a builder."
She said she likes to go out running when she feels under pressure. These days, she has been under pressure for so long she can easily put 5 km behind her.
Ren Hongyan, Liu's mother back home in Tianjin, said her daughter never let on just how much of a challenge the project was.
"She always told us the good news and never told us how difficult it was," Ren said. "I didn't know the details of what she was working on until I read all about her in the newspapers."
The first Flying Box designed by Liu went into use at Shaba primary school in June last year and a proud Liu visited the mountain village for the first time to attend the opening ceremony.
She turned up two days early and visited several of the pupils and the principal in their homes.
Liu and a teacher in front of a Flying Box dormitory in the school. Provided to CHINA DAILY
"It was a shock for me to see that path through the mountains. It was such a hard walk," she said. "I slipped over three times on the same slope!"
According to Fang Kunyou, the principal of Shaba primary school, some students had even dropped out of school in the past because the walk was such a struggle.
Liu said it feels good to think she may be helping to do more than make life easier for some of the children, she may actually be helping keep them in school.
"What we did may change these children's whole lives," she said. "My life became meaningful because of that."
Ren said she saw a change for the better in her daughter because of the experience.
"She changed a lot during the past year," Ren said. "She became more mature and decisive. I'm so proud of her."
But the mother was worried her daughter had been working so hard and putting in such long hours on the Flying Box project that her studies had suffered.
Ren said her daughter regularly hit the books until midnight to make up for lost time.
"I used to hope she would further her studies as a postgraduate," Ren said. "Now, I'm afraid she is too tired but I will support her and respect her choice."
Liu believes she can do well in school and carry on expanding the Flying Boxes project. She said the university is fully supporting her and she now has a team helping her that is made up of more than 100 volunteers.
Their aim is to build 50 Flying Boxes in the next two years for schools all over the country.
"I can handle it," Liu said. "I cannot stop. It's a kind of mission for me to help these children in the mountains."