The story of two young Americans who began an organization called “Education in Sight”, aiming to provide vision tests and eyeglasses to students in rural Yunnan Province, has recently been featured in reports about philanthropy and goodwill across China. After graduating from Columbia University and Boston University respectively, Sam and his friend Andrew came to China in 2010 to teach rural children.
After a twelve hour car ride from the provincial capital of Kunming, Sam and Andrew arrived in a small Yunnan village, where most residents had never even seen a foreigner. Their real story began after they became acquainted with the village and the students in the school. Not long after they began teaching, Andrew realized that many students would come up to the front of the class because they couldn’t see the blackboard. Because the students were used to strict Chinese teachers, they previously never dared to come to the front of the class, in fear of being scolded. Sam and Andrew however had a more relaxed teaching method, so the students felt more comfortable running up to the front of the classroom. In response, Sam and Andrew conducted a simple classroom survey and were surprised to find that some students couldn’t even read large print characters on the blackboard.
Sam recalls his original reaction, saying “I am unable to understand how these students were able to get through class. If they couldn’t read the blackboard they would be scolded by their teachers, which would discourage them from learning even more. I feel really bad for them”. Andrew adds that “according to a Stanford University report, giving a child vision is more impactful to their education than their parents’ income or education level.”
It is estimated that there are tens of millions of students in China that suffer from nearsightedness, and about a tenth of them never get treatment. The parents of the students in Sam and Andrew’s classroom cannot afford to buy glasses for their children; feeding them and paying their tuition is already considered a luxury. Students in Chinese cities take their education for granted, but students in rural Yunnan view education as an extravagant dream, especially those who cannot see the board clearly.
“We went to the nearest clinic and persuaded the ophthalmologists to conduct vision tests on the students. We could only pay a small amount, but they agreed. We are extremely grateful to them”, say Sam and Andrew who repeatedly expressed their gratitude to the Ophthalmology Department. Afterwards, they decided to help more students who suffered from nearsightedness.
“Education in Sight” was established in 2012 and originally only provided vision tests to students, but soon afterwards the organization began instructing students on how to properly use their glasses as many students had never even touched a pair of glasses. Then in 2014, Sam and Andrew went to Beijing to try their hand at entrepreneurship, starting their own self-designed eyeglass brand, Mantra. Every time someone bought a pair of Mantra eyeglasses, they would donate a pair to a student in Yunnan. Since being established, “Education in Sight” has provided vision tests to 116,000 students in 250 junior high schools across Yunnan Province. In addition, the organization has provided 15,000 pairs of glasses to students in need.