Andrea Pasinetti: Bringing quality education for all children in China

Tall, handsome, impeccably dressed and bearing a calm and self-assured composure that is beyond his age of 28 years, Italian-American Andrea Pasinetti has the demeanor of a CEO of a big international company. Yet he has set his eyes on charitable work in a country far away from his own.

Andrea Pasinetti is founder and CEO of Teach For China (TFC), a non-profit organization with a noble mission of providing all children in China access to quality education.

Andrea Pasinetti talks to at his office in Beijing. Photo: Ding Yi/

From Princeton to China’s countryside

It happened neither by deliberate design nor on a whim. Looking back on his decision that took him all the way from Princeton’s renowned Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to China, Andrea couldn’t recall any grand reasoning or lofty ideals.

He remembered listening to the university president’s welcome speech in which he encouraged the students to take full advantage of the university by doing something different, something that is out of their normal realm of interest. “For me, China was the farthest from my comfort zone,” he explained in perfect Chinese.

Andrea finally took his China trip in his junior year and studied Chinese at the Inter-University Program for Chinese Language Studies at the Tsinghua University, where he intended to stay for just one academic year. However, the trajectory of his life was completely altered when he followed his classmate’s suggestion and went to do field work in China’s countryside in an attempt to get to know the country better.

Andrea’s first stop, a small county called Shuangjiang in South China’s Yunnan Province, proved to be a fateful place. After travelling hours on end, the tractor that carried Andrea and others got stuck in the mud half way to the hill-top village they were headed to. Hungry and exhausted, they were greeted by the headmaster who came downhill to pick them and brought with him a pot of chicken stew.

By the moonlight, Andrea had what years later he still considers to be the tastiest meal he ever ate, sitting there on the muddy ground by the side of a sugarcane grove. The story of the chicken stew is now a media favorite and a romantic prelude to what was to become Teach for China, one of the most successful NPOs in China.

In the countryside, Andrea developed a passion for education, which came to him as fortuitous as his decision that brought him to China. “I was received with the warmest welcome at the schools. The headmasters, the teachers, the children and their parents, they were all very nice and eager to talk to me. It is natural that I developed an interest in education.”

The knowledge that the children, who were just as clever as he is, probably will not have the same opportunities in life as he does because they do not have access to quality education was a big shock for Andrea. He wanted to do something for the children, but did not know where to begin.

“I talked to the headmasters, asking them what they needed most. And they told me they needed good teachers,” Andrea recalled.

Andrea ended up visiting many rural schools in different areas of China, and found out that the same problem existed in all the schools. “Teachers were hard to recruit and hard to keep for those schools. That was where I could help.”

And he did exactly that. Andrea quit his study at Princeton at the age of 22 and stayed on in China. Unlike the other famous university drop-outs who went on to become entrepreneurs, Andrea chose the path of philanthropy. And six years later, he is now running one of the most successful NGOs in China, a country he now calls his home.

Teach for China

The organization Andrea started was initially called China Education Initiative (CEI).  “To be honest, the name just came out off the top of my head. After all, it is an initiative that has to do with China and education,” Andrea laughed as he remembered how Teach for China was first named.

Like any NGO, the beginning was always hard. With CEI, it was extra difficult as many people, including the potential donors, were skeptical about young people’s willingness to forsake a highly paid career and work in the countryside as volunteer teachers.

They were proven wrong. Over the past six years, Andrea and his team have sent over 600 volunteer teachers, most of them fresh graduates from college, to 128 schools in China’s Yunnan and Guangdong provinces. “Regardless of their background, many young people do have a strong urge to give back to the society and help change those children’s lives through their own efforts, which I admire greatly,” said Andrea.

“We had over 3,000 applications last year, and less than 300 were recruited. Our admission rate is even lower than that of Harvard Business School!” Andrea proudly revealed. The strict screening process ensures that all the teachers have both the capability and stamina for the two years’ hard work they are to take on.

In 2010, CEI joined the network of Teach For All, initiated by Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, and changed its name to TFC. Of the 30 or so similar organizations worldwide, TFC is the only one founded by someone who is not a native of the home country. Andrea stressed that other than the fact that he is not a native Chinese, TFC is a Chinese organization through and through.

He was also quick to point out that after seven years in China, he no longer considers himself as a “laowai” (a Chinese slang for foreigner). “I am neither lao (old), nor wai (outsider),” he laughed.

Anyone who is familiar with Andrea and TFC would attest to that statement because Andrea not only takes no salary, he is also one of the donors of the organization. Certainly that is not something an “outsider” would do. Once, he sold a patch of cherry groves left for him by his grandfather to help Teach for China get over a financial crisis. And no one even knew he did it until a year later when he mentioned it in a speech.

“There is no regret because I am seeing the outcome that I want to see,” Andrea said. To date, over 100,000 children have been taught by Teach for China teachers. “Every day I am hearing wonderful stories. Some of the children were stopped from quitting school. Some of them overcame their psychological problems and made progress in their studies. And many of them went to high school, thanks to the wonderful work of our teachers. One day, I hope I can see our students on the campus of Peking University, or Tsinghua University, or even Princeton.”

Photos of the children from TFC's parner schools decorated Andrea's wall. Photo: Ding Yi/

‘Until I am no longer needed’

In March 2014, Andrea was named one of the Global Young Leaders at the World Economic Forum at Davos, the youngest among the 14 fellow nominees from the Greater China region. This is the latest of many accolades attributed to him for his outstanding work with TFC.

Andrea, however, brushed off any compliment piled on him and took the opportunity to praise his talented team. “At Teach for China, we have people who graduated from the best universities in the world and have worked in the top 500 global corporations. It was due to the collaboration of this highly efficient and highly professional team that we succeeded in achieving what we have achieved in the past six years. I shouldn’t be under the limelight alone.”

For the 600 volunteer teachers, the job isn’t all about two years of living in harsh conditions while getting only a small amount of subsidy. TFC, which is aiming to be the “best company to work for” just as Teach for America, which earned the honor twice in the US, gives great support to the teachers both during and after their two years of teaching.

Job opportunities are available with a number of TFC partners for any teacher who wants to try a different career path. Scholarships from some of the top American universities are available to those who want to pursue higher education. And for those who want to do charity work, TFC offers full support. Education in Sight, a non-profit founded by two TFC alumni Andrew Shirman and Sam Waldo, is one of several such organizations established with the help of Teach for China.

Looking ahead, Andrea says, “This is my first job, and my only job so far. I have to teach myself how to lead and manage an organization. My biggest challenge is to make sure my growth can keep up with the development of TFC.”

“And of course, the ultimate dream is to achieve what we set out to do, to see to it that all children in China can enjoy access to quality education. I would love to see the day when Teach for China is no longer needed and I am out of a job. I will work until that day comes.”

A TFC poster that features its slogan: Give all children in China, regardless of their background, equal access to quality education. Photo: Courtesy of TFC

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