Student Profiles: James
James is an exceptional young man. When we sat down for a coffee in the shop below my office I was struck by his smart style, quiet confidence and eloquent conversation. He has something of a presence, a light around him which is difficult to describe but inescapable when you meet him in person. He is charming.
An hour over coffee with James is simply not enough time. We quickly move from small talk on to our mutual interests in philosophy, politics and economics. James is extremely well read across these three interconnected disciplines and our conversation flows from the works of classical western philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Mill, Locke, Kant and Rousseau to a heated discussion of the seminal political philosophy text A Theory of Justice by John Rawls. We both agree that we are Rawlsian in our vision of a just and fair society and that that vision is of a society with an emphasis on equality of opportunity for all.
James’ passion for social justice burns like the sun. As I ask him about what motivates and inspires him he talks about an experience in rural Gansu where he volunteered as a teacher in an impoverished community. He told me about a little girl who had never had a science lesson before and when she saw the results of a chemistry experiment was mesmerised. When he left she told him that he had inspired her to become a scientist when she grows up. A sensitive and passionate soul, James’ eyes well with tears as he remembers the little girl and he has to take a few moments to compose himself before he can continue.
‘I know she will never realise that dream’, he tells me, emotionally. She is from a poor family, in a poor community in an under-resourced and over-stretched school with few basic facilities for science lessons. Her dream is over before it has a chance to begin.
James’ face turns from teary to angry and his eyes burn again with passion. How can there be so many children in our modern world with such huge potential but with no hope of realising it due to poverty? He talks about the example of Tu Youyou, the Chinese chemist born in Ningbo in 1930 who was the first ever female citizen of China to win a Nobel Prize in any category (hers happened to be in medicine) in 2015. He thinks about what China would have been like when she was a little girl and the struggles she must have overcome to achieve her success. He feels a great sense of injustice that we have not made more progress in removing the social and economic barriers to success and upward mobility.
I realise I have been silent for nearly twenty minutes, listening intently as James pours out his soul, articulately, passionately, convincingly.
We move on to talk about his career aspirations. Unsurprisingly, his goal is to become a social and economic researcher for an intergovernmental organisation in order to shape policy which will help people, regions and countries out of the traps of poverty. Although he is a first-class student in International Economics and Trade (as we talk I think to myself that he would almost certainly be a first class student in any subject he decided to pursue) he wants to study the Master’s Programme in Social Science at the University of Chicago. He explains that to lift people and communities out of poverty, finance and economics in isolation are not enough. In addition we need to understand political, sociological and anthropological contexts and opportunities. He is a bright and highly intelligent young man, James.
As we come to the end of our hour together I find myself wishing we could spend the rest of the afternoon together and indeed continue debating how to fix the world long into the evening casting out my thoughts and listening to James’ insightful and intelligent perspectives on them. Alas, the clock strikes and we prepare to go our separate ways. As I shake James’ hand and say goodbye I make a mental note to remember this man’s name and face. One day he could very well be the next Chinese citizen receiving a Noble Prize.
James’ advice: Don’t take things too seriously. Enjoy all of life’s possibilities and opportunities.