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College education changes destiny of Xinjiang herders

URUMQI, May 12 (Xinhua) -- The parents of Gypar Sattwaldi, 24, and Qirhal Sattwaldi, 21, are the envy of their herding community; The two beautiful girls are college students.

Gypar and Qirhal were born into a Kirgiz family in Wuqia County, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The Pamir Plateau is one of the most deprived areas in this remote northwestern region of China, and the children of Kirgiz herders once had limited access to higher education. Few were encouraged to aim beyond their ancestral nomadic life.

"Without support or opportunities, my sister and I would have become shepherds," said Qirhal. Luckily for her, the young woman's family is just one of thousands to have benefited from drastic changes over the past decade.

The Sattwaldis used to live at an altitude of 3,000 meters, but their lives were way below the national poverty line. Their village had no roads, mains water, or electricity. In 2014, the whole family was relocated to a purpose-built new community, under a wide-reaching initiative to lift impoverished herders out of poverty.

Coupled with the significant investment of new accommodation in Xinjiang, is improved access to education. Since 2000, China launched the "Xinjiang classes" program, which places students at top high schools in more economically developed areas.

Gypar secured a place under the "Xinjiang classes" program in the city of Wuxi, east China.

"Never in my wildest dreams had I expected to go to school outside Xinjiang," she said. "I enjoy city life. That's why I didn't hesitate to apply to a university outside Xinjiang. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. It led me to a world outside the mountains."

Qirhal is in her sophomore year at the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in the city of Chengdu, southwest China.

"Studying finance can help me count sheep faster," she said lightheartedly.

"I would like to work in a bank, maybe become a bank manager," she added.

Her elder sister dreams of being a mentor. In her final undergraduate year at Changji University, Xinjiang, Gypar sees her future as a teacher.

"I want to become a math teacher back home," she said. "I grew up on the Pamir Plateau. I know that many local children ache for a chance to get out of the mountains. I want to play a part in the realization of their dreams."

The sisters say they owe everything to their supportive parents.

"When I was younger, my parents worked very hard to make money. Naturally, I wanted to leave school early to help ease their burden," said Gypar. "But they did not agree with my sacrifice. They told me that studying hard is the best way for children to pay back their parents."

Today, poor parents like the Sattwaldis do not have to worry about the financial strain of tuition fees. The sisters receive a government grant of 4,000 yuan that covers their annual college tuition fees. In 2017, Xinjiang became China's first provincial-level region to offer free education from pre-school to high school, benefiting students like the family's younger son, who is now in high school.

The sisters are local celebrities. During vacations, they are often invited to share their stories with night school students. They also share popular songs and movies with children, teach their family how to use social networking platforms, and help their neighbors with their academic pursuits.

As this year Xinjiang is determined to eradicate absolute poverty by lifting its final 165,800 residents out of poverty, it also plans to have 40 percent of students in university by 2020.

"I hope they can leave the mountains for better lives," said their father Sattwaldi Zahir. Enditem

 


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