Alumnus of the year 2017

Jianwei Zheng

Jianwei Zheng

Jianwei has overcome the barriers facing most of the 8 million visually impaired people in China. Studying at Essex allowed him to complete a TESOL, an opportunity that would not have been available in China as the national entrance exam for graduate schools does not offer a version to blind candidates.

In preparation for his Essex degree, Jianwei studied English independently for three years before becoming the first visually-impaired candidate to take the IELTS in China's southwest region, a significant achievement.

Since returning to China he has begun his career as a private English tutor. He also raises awareness about the benefits of inclusive education through speeches, media interviews and seminars, and practises this in his own profession.

Jianwei’s inspiring story has been documented in the China Daily and as a television programme on China Central Television. His story has also been followed by the Chinese government; he met the President and Vice Prime Ministers as an attendee of the 2014 National Awards Ceremony for Outstanding Disabled People, where he was honoured as one of 165 national role models for people with disabilities, something Jianwei describes as "the highest honour". The year before, he had been awarded the title of one of the "2013 Top Ten People who have moved to Chongqing", presented by the municipal government of Chongqing.

Jianwei says "my story has already, and will continue, to encourage the blind in China in pursuing their dreams. My current work benefits in closing the gap between visually-impaired people and the so-called mainstream society. I'm focused on developing new and advanced teaching approaches which will build a bridge between students and myself as a visually-impaired teacher."

Jianwei’s long term goal is to found a school in which pupils with diverse needs - whether physical, economic, or cultural - will be accepted, and where disadvantaged pupils will have a chance to develop. He feels this will be of great importance to educational equality, elimination of discrimination and improving the situation of disadvantaged groups' in southwest of China.

His course tutor, Dr Desmond Thomas, believes that "if he finds that attitudes towards disabled teachers in China are still rather negative, he can be part of the solution. He can help change such attitudes using his own personal charisma."

In early 2016, Jianwei won the Social Impact Award at the British Council Education UK Alumni Awards 2016 in China, beating competition from alumni from institutions such as the University of Oxford and Durham University to win this prestigious award.

Oration

Oration by Vanessa Potter, Director of Communications and External Relations

Today we are here to recognise Jianwei Zheng as the University of Essex Alumnus of the Year. Through his many and varied personal experiences Jianwei is a genuine inspiration to others. He is an exemplary embodiment of the Essex spirit. And we are extremely proud to recognise him as a lifelong member of our University. I’d just like to take a few minutes to describe Jianwei’s journey.

Totally blind since birth, Jianwei refused to accept the limitations that society tried to impose on him. Attending a school for the blind from the age of seven, and a hundred kilometres away from home, his teachers repeatedly told Jianwei that his future working would be bleak and extremely limited, because of his blindness.

But Jianwei never accepted this. Why should visually-impaired students be held back from achieving their ambitions? Not Jianwei. Instead, at the age of twenty-six, he started to teach himself English – as a complete beginner. Incredibly, he became the first visually-impaired candidate to take the International English Language Testing System in China’s southwest region.

In 2013 he came to the University of Essex. It was, he said, “an opportunity to learn the possibility of realizing a dream.” He graduated from his Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, or TESOL course, and today he teaches English as a private tutor in China.

He helps his students with their English language learning and test preparation by encouraging them with his own story, and sharing not just his own experience, but also the textbooks and materials he has developed himself. He also spends his time raising awareness about the benefits of inclusive education through speeches, media interviews, and seminars.

By sharing his own experiences, Jianwei is helping to change perceptions of disabled people across Chinese society. He is, quite simply, inspiring other people with disabilities to achieve their goals. Every day. His spirited determination has been recognised not just by his Essex tutors, but also by UK organisations, and the Chinese government:

  • His course tutor, Dr Desmond Thomas, said: “Here was a person who was determined to break out of the confines of his disability, to travel to another country, and study alongside experienced teachers, who were also native speakers of English. If Jianwei believes attitudes towards disabled teachers in China are still rather negative then he can be part of the solution, he can help change such attitudes using his own personal charisma.”
  • Jianwei was one of just 165 disabled people who were honoured as national role models at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in May 2014. During the ceremony he met the Chinese President, Prime Minister and Vice Prime Ministers. This is the highest honour for any disabled person in China.
  • And earlier this year, Jianwei beat off competition from alumni from institutions such as the University of Oxford and Durham University, to win the 2016 Social Impact Award at the British Council’s Education UK Alumni Awards in China. An incredible achievement.

Jianwei wants educational equality. He wants to eliminate discrimination. He wants to improve the lives of disadvantaged people, but further than that, he wants blind people in China to pursue their dreams.

In a recent interview, Jianwei said: “I am aiming to realise my childhood dream that the life of disabled people is not crippled by the manacles of segregation, and the chains of discrimination based on disability.”

Much of Jianwei’s work focuses on closing the gap between visually-impaired people and the so-called ‘mainstream’ society. And he is developing new and advanced teaching approaches that can build bridges between him, as a visually-impaired teacher, and his students.

A long-term aim of Jianwei’s is to found a fully-inclusive school in China where students with, or without, a disability can learn together. In the nearer future, Jianwei hopes to complete a PhD to conduct further research into inclusive education and continues to develop his skills as a language teacher.

Jianwei believes that “only through education can we gain more freedom” and he wants pupils not just to be accepted – but to have the opportunity to grow, and thrive.

Ladies and gentleman: Jianwei Zheng, our Alumnus of the Year.

Response

Response by Jianwei Zheng

Thank you, thank you for that! Honourable Professor Forster, ladies and gentlemen, good evening! As you know, my name is Zheng Jianwei. I am very grateful, deeply, for University of Essex’s invitation. I’m very excited and I’m very pleased to attend newly celebration for alumni and most honoured to receive this Alumnus of the Year award for 2017.

As you know, 26 years ago, being eager to go to school as my peers, hundreds of kilometers away from my hometown, I entered into the school for the blind, where teachers told me repeatedly you must learn massage art otherwise you have to be a beggar or a fortune teller.

But I had a dream: people with impairments could be free to pursue their dreams like people without, if they wanted. With determination and hard work, I took the IELTS and completed the master TESOL at the University of Essex.

I’d like to thank the University of Essex for a wonderful, colourful and unforgettable life there. I will never forget squares 1,2,3,4 and 5, chicken wings from Happy Days and instant noodles after the club. I will also never forget the main list of buildings and the path to the University of Essex throughout the world. It is said people who can find their classrooms at Essex will never lose their way.

I’d like to thank the University of Essex for patience, kindness and friendliness of the people there. I’d like to thank the University of Essex, for its inclusivity where I gained confidence, energy, power and went on to realise my dream. I’d like to thank everybody present today. Thank you to all people contributing to this fantastic ceremony and thank you University of Essex for presenting this honour to me. I heard a lot of good and fantastic news about Essex from Professor Forster earlier so I am very proud of the University of Essex and I will forever be proud of the University of Essex.

I wish the University of Essex every success! Thank you!