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Tsinghua student inspires with humble background

By Zhao Yimeng, Zhang Wenfang and Wang Danning | China Daily | Updated: 2024-07-10 10:03

A student from a humble background who once worked odd jobs on construction sites to earn his tuition fees has completed his undergraduate studies at the prestigious Tsinghua University and will pursue further education in robotics and artificial intelligence.

Six years ago, Shan Xiaolong's admission to Tsinghua caused a sensation, highlighting the stark contrast between the part-time job and his success in the national college entrance exam, or gaokao. He was admitted to the university's Department of Electronic Engineering with a score of 676.

On June 30, Shan was among 3,500 undergraduate students attending the commencement of the class of 2024. He will continue his studies for a master's degree in late August, focusing on robotics and AI.

Shan was born in 2000 into a farming family in Xiji county, Guyuan, in Northwest China's Ningxia Hui autonomous region. His father, once a laborer, suffered a back injury that prevented him from doing heavy work, while his mother had been dealing with an eye disease for many years.

To support his family and fund his higher education, Shan took up a temporary construction job during summer vacation after his gaokao, earning a daily wage of 200 yuan ($27.50). Government student loans and charitable funds were also in place to assist his studies.

Before studying at the top university, Shan said he thought college life would be filled with competition awards and published papers in core journals, like the media reported.

"Later I found that I was just a regular student at Tsinghua and might not end up with brilliant scientific achievements," Shan said.

What did meet his expectations was that the university highlighted the cultivation of talent that can integrate individual values with the nation's development.

"We are encouraged to be a person who can make contributions to society," Shan said.

Inspired by a lecture from Major General Zhu Fengrong, a 1966 Tsinghua alumna who devoted herself to nuclear tests in northwestern China, Shan realized the importance of combining his own development with the country's needs.

That reflection led him to join the People's Liberation Army Navy during his junior year, seeking a new environment to deepen his understanding and growth.

While studying at Tsinghua, Shan served as a counselor for the school's Student Affairs Office, focusing on supporting students from similar backgrounds.

He also once organized a public welfare classroom in his hometown, offering free tutoring for students from economically disadvantaged families.

In 2018, when first in the public spotlight and labeled the "construction site boy admitted to Tsinghua", Shan said he hadn't adapted to the overwhelming attention.

Shan said he represents a group of people who earned their tuition fees through part-time jobs, whether at a construction site, in a restaurant, or delivering packages.

"For us, it was really ordinary to earn a living with hard work," Shan said.

The experience in the army and the growth at the university changed his mindset and helped him see through the "fame".

"The journey from construction site to Tsinghua is just a small part of my life," Shan said, adding that he no longer felt anxious about public attention.

Though finding a job after graduation could have helped support his family financially, Shan said he and his parents hoped he could continue conducting research on cutting-edge technology with the resources of Tsinghua.

Shan said that after he finishes his graduate studies, he is considering contributing to the promising AI industry with his academic research or returning to his hometown to serve as a grassroots civil servant.

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