What I learned from this programme is that you have to take the extra step, to move outside of your comfort zone to do things other people wouldn’t do.
The forthcoming Platinum Jubilee Weekend will see thousands of beacons lit across the UK and the Commonwealth. And a key figure behind the delivery of this amazing spectacle is Baizhou Cai, one of the first graduates of a SHINE-backed programme for high-achieving children from deprived backgrounds.
Eighteen years ago, when the charity was based in London, SHINE was one of the early funders of Brunel University’s Urban Scholars, a unique, sustained three-year intervention programme which, to this day, provides enriched learning experiences for students aged between 12 and 18, from inner London schools.
Baizhou, then aged 12, was part of the pilot group of young people enrolled onto Urban Scholars.
He flourished during his three years on the programme, and went on to become hugely successful, running several businesses, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and an advisor for the Chinese government. Baizhou has been involved in the organisation of several Royal events, is an acclaimed architectural designer and a lecturer at the University of West London.
Baizhou remains forever grateful for the support and education he received during his time on the programme.
“I come from quite a poor family,” he said. “My mother came to the UK from China and she couldn’t find a job at the same level as she was working at in China, so she had to work from the bottom up. And we were struggling.”
A teacher at Baizhou’s school saw his potential and urged him to apply for the Urban Scholars programme.
“When I joined the programme. I thought it was amazing,” said Baizhou. “I believe we were the very first group of people who really have benefited from it.”
Of everything Baizhou learned during his three years as an Urban Scholar, the element which had the biggest impact was critical thinking – the ability to think clearly and rationally, understanding the logical connection between ideas.
“That really got me to rethink how I look at things and how I plan things out. And I believe that played a big part in my professional career – it really got us to think outside the box and from all kinds of angles.”
Using the skills learned during the programme, Baizhou now runs three business – an architectural design service, a property development company, which is backed by foreign investors, and an events company which specialises in working with the Royal Family on major events.
“What I learned from this programme is that you have to take the extra step, to move outside of your comfort zone to do things other people wouldn’t do.”
Such was the impact on the programme, Baizhou now visits schools to inspire the next generation to fulfil their potential.
But he admits it’s often challenging to raise the aspirations of young people.
“I’ve spoken in quite a few schools, and it’s quite difficult to tell a 12-year-old young person, what’s going to happen in 5 to 10 years if you do this and that, when they have all their friends around them, and all they do is enjoy what they’ve got in front of them.
“It’s very difficult for somebody that young to realise the opportunity they are being given.
“They need a lot of external force to guide them towards taking up these opportunities, which will make a difference in their future lives.
“I believe good teachers are key to this. You really must meet the right teacher who will appreciate you, encourage you and really push you out of your comfort zone to make a change.
“And I think I’m lucky that I’ve come by a teacher like that, because when I got into the programme, I’d just come to the country, I could barely speak fluent English.
“For some reason they’ve seen that potential in me, and he pushed me and said ‘apply for this’.
“If that motivation does not come from the family, you need it from the school – you need that point of contact, who’s got the passion to push young people forward. I think that’s really important.
“The programme really shaped me. People often say to me that I’m so lucky, my life has gone so smoothly, but if I hadn’t been put forward for the Urban Scholars programme, I wouldn’t have been exposed to the so-called professional world, or higher education.
I believe good teachers are key to this. You really must meet the right teacher who will appreciate you, encourage you and really push you out of your comfort zone to make a change.
“At the time I was still a teenager, and I’ve always liked playing games; I’d be on a PlayStation playing Battlefront, and it does take a lot of willpower to take yourself away from that and give up a whole day to go into study.
“But as I was studying there, quite early on, I started understanding what I was doing, and I started having an aim in life. And that’s when I discovered architecture, and then spoke to the programme leaders who told me what I would need to do to have a career in that.”
Asked if he had a message for the donors who made it possible for him to attend the Urban Scholars programme, Baizhou said: “I want to thank them. Very sincerely, I want to thank them, because without their funding, this programme would not have happened. And I would never been chosen to go on it. And without any piece of the puzzle, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
“So what they’ve done has really made a massive difference to my life.”
Baizhou was so inspired by the teachers and professors on the Urban Scholars programme that he decided to follow in their footsteps.
“After I graduated, I became a lecturer at university – and a big reason for this, is because of programmes like Urban Scholars, because I’ve met great educators who really put their heart into programmes and believe in young people. And that really moved me and gave me this idea that I want to do something similar. I want to become a teacher; I want to become a lecturer to help those who are in a similar position as me.
“And so, from the beginning, I have given extra time to those students who came from disadvantaged family backgrounds, or ethnic minority groups, who weren’t really valued or being looked after
“I want to step forward, and I want to fill that gap and look after those who were not looked after. So that’s what I’ve been doing.
“It gives me a lot of meaning to life now, believing that I’m also making a difference to young people, and especially those from poor backgrounds. To give them some help – however little it is – I hope that it will benefit them a lot.”
★ Having moved from London to the North of England in 2017, SHINE no longer funds Urban Scholars, however, we now support programmes across the North for high-achieving students through our Flying High funding stream. Click here for details.