Instilling a love of learning

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 January, 2011, 12:00am

It is probably safe to say that Kelly Yang has so far done everything early in life. The former child prodigy, who moved to the United States from Tianjin when she was six, entered the University of California, Berkeley, at 13 before going on to Harvard Law School at 17, graduating at the age of 20.

Now, a mother of two, the 26-year-old runs the Kelly Yang Project (KYP), a Hong Kong-based, award-winning after-school programme for students that focuses on English creative thinking, writing and critical reasoning. Along the way, Yang has won a string of accolades and awards - California Legislature's 2000 Woman of the Year, Asian-Pacific Americans in Higher Education Scholar, and CosmoGIRL of the Year. She is also on the board of directors of The Harvard Club of Hong Kong.

What was it like to go to college at 13?

It was exciting in that I was challenged every day, never bored, and always eager to learn more and prove myself. But it was also nerve-wracking because I had to improve and mature fast intellectually and emotionally. I literally had to grow up in five minutes.

Why did you move on to law school?

I loved writing and law school was a natural next step for political science majors who were great writers. Also because, coming out of college, I was only 17 and clearly not ready to work.

I quickly saw that most of the graduates became corporate lawyers. But the job, to me, was dry and boring. The work may sound impressive but when you get down to it, it is just a lot of form-filling, arguing over tiny details and looking over paperwork. I needed something more creative and fun which would require more people skills and make me laugh at least once an hour. It was a tough decision to give up law to be a teacher - my peers, professors and family thought I was crazy. But it was the best decision I ever made.

Why did you set up Kelly Yang Project after finishing law school?

Asian education is traditionally quite boring, with a lot of rote learning and tedious studying. I wanted to inspire kids in Asia to be creative, think outside the box, and look at what is going on in the world with a critical eye. In the process, I wanted them to become better writers and public speakers. Hong Kong, with its warm acceptance of new ideas and proximity to the mainland, would be the best place to start KYP.

What are your responsibilities?

First and foremost, I am a teacher at KYP. I also oversee my team of teachers and handle administrative matters. What makes our programme different is all our teachers are full-time with us. So a big part of our day is getting together as teachers, discussing students and student work, and reviewing and improving how we teach.

I also write a column for the South China Morning Post on education, and give talks regularly at the city, regional and international levels, on topics such as the US college admissions process, the International Baccalaureate system, and how to foster a love of literature and writing in children.

What was the biggest challenge you have encountered?

One of the problems is our kids live in an over-stimulated generation that frequently doesn't really care much about anything - especially here in Hong Kong. It turns out that if you show a kid that something is so exciting - even something like writing - eventually they will get excited, too. They will put down their PSPs and iPhones and engage. That moment is the most rewarding of all because I know I have just turned a kid on to learning. What could be better than that?

What would you say is your biggest achievement so far?

There are a few things I am very proud of besides starting KYP and having my two adorable boys - finally being able to drive, learning to ski, being an excellent baker and knowing how to make double-sided, collated booklets on our office copier.

Yang's roadmap

Take the road less travelled by

Find something you love to do

Work on it until you're great at it

If you do what you love, it isn't really 'work'