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UPDATED: Oct. 1, 2014, at 11:40 p.m.
Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin, the couple who co-founded China’s largest commercial real estate company and donated $15 million to the University last July, shared their views on education and philanthropy with hundreds of students on Wednesday in a filled Science Center B.
The pair, which Forbes dubbed one of the “World’s Most Powerful Couples,” currently heads the real estate developer SOHO China Ltd. as well as the philanthropic organization SOHO China Foundation.
Last July, the foundation launched the $100 million “SOHO China Scholarship” to provide financial aid for Chinese students to study at the world’s top universities, starting with a $15 million gift to Harvard.
Co-hosted by Harvard China Fund and several Chinese students’ groups on campus, Wednesday's event was conducted mostly in Chinese because many audience members were Chinese nationals.
William C. Kirby, a professor of Chinese studies, introduced the couple by recounting their respective rags-to-riches stories.
Zhang worked as a factory girl before studying in the United Kingdom on financial aid. Similarly, the opportunity to go to college was life-changing for Pan, who was born in rural China.
“To both of them, education was key to later success. They know the transformative power of learning,” Kirby said, after calling their donation “a gift of transformational proportions.”
“I’ve always thought that one’s relationship with society is in an equilibrium. The more you give, the more you will gain,” Pan said in Chinese.
The couple, who has a combined 25 million fans on the Chinese Twitter-like social media platform Sina Weibo, faced severe criticism in China after announcing their donation to Harvard.
“People have been saying that we are taking money from the Chinese people before giving it away to Americans. Many have hurled us doubts and even invectives,” Pan said. “But we can’t live for these doubts. As long as we think it’s the right thing, we will keep doing it.”
Currently, eight Chinese students at Harvard College have benefitted from the SOHO China Scholarship.
“Eight scholars is a drop in the ocean,” Zhang said. “We can’t solve all the problems in China’s education system, but this serves as an example.”
Zhang said that even though China produced close to 10 million high school graduates last year, less than 500 applied to Harvard College.
“Many Chinese families are not aware of the financial options [offered by American colleges],” she said. “Through our public profile, we hope that more Chinese students will see this as a potential future.”
Some Chinese students have reacted positively to the scholarship.
“It’s going to have a lot of ripple effect[s]…. I would expect more and more donors coming from mainland China to replicate this,” said Sicong Shan, president of Harvard Chinese Students and Scholars Association and a student at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. HCSSA was one of four co-hosts of the event.
“This is a better way of using their money than if they go and purchase more real estate [properties],” said Yang Du, another GSAS student who attended the event.
Tianxing Lan ’18, one of the eight beneficiaries of the donation, said the total amount of financial aid that he was receiving from Harvard was not increased by the SOHO China Scholarship.
“I think for now, there hasn’t been a big influence on whether more Chinese students will apply to Harvard, because you can get financial aid anyway,” said Lan, referring to Harvard’s need-blind admissions and need-based financial aid policy for international students.
“But if they continue to give money to schools that don’t give a lot of financial aid to Chinese students such as Stanford and Duke, that would influence people’s decisions to apply to those schools,” Lan said.
—Staff writer Zara Zhang can be reached at email@example.com.
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