Student Profiles: Renyi
I met Renyi over green tea on a cold, wet afternoon in Ningbo. As we settled down into the cosy, oversized armchairs of the Sofitel lobby bar, the steam rose from the delicate glass cups on the traditional Chinese tea tray in front of us. The heavy rain outside lashed against the floor to ceiling windows as the wind tore at the trees like the shockwaves of some invisible blast.
“You must be used to this weather,” Renyi said as she flashed a playful smile, “being from the UK and all. Doesn’t it rain like this every day in London?”
She filled a small cup of tea from the glass pot in front of us as she spoke, the green leaves infusing the light lemon yellow water.
“Well, you ought to know,” I replied, “You have spent the past year living in one of the rainiest cities in the whole of the UK. How does it compare?”
Renyi is about to return to Liverpool, an important industrial city on the north-west coast of England, exposed to notoriously unforgiving weather and the violent whims of the bleak and tempestuous Irish Sea.
“It’s not that bad really,” she laughs, “but it’s fun to tease British people about the weather.”
I sense immediately that Renyi has wasted no time in getting to know British culture and humour during her year in the UK. She is confident, funny and very intelligent and she talks about Liverpool as if she had been born and brought up there.
“I have to admit,” she says, “when I first moved to Liverpool, which is one of the biggest cities in the UK, I thought it was tiny compared to a Chinese city. But I soon realised that it’s not the size of a place that matters, it’s what you do with yourself that defines your experience - wherever you are.”
And Renyi certainly finds plenty to do with herself. She’s in the third year of her BSc in Economics at the University of Liverpool where she is expecting to graduate with a first class honours degree next year. In her spare time, she volunteers at The British Red Cross, a local Charity with retail shops on every high street in the country, staffed by volunteers who raise money to help people in crisis all over the world.
“What made you decide to volunteer in a local charity shop?” I ask.
“There are so many Chinese students in Liverpool,” she replies, “I felt I needed to get away from the University and into the local community to get an authentic understanding of British society and culture.
“I mean, what’s the point of spending time living in another country if you don’t try to learn about the local people and culture?
“Working in the charity shop has been one of the best decisions I’ve made. I’ve learnt that volunteering in the community and helping those less fortunate is a really important part of British people’s identity. Thousands of people across the country give up their free time every week to volunteer for causes as diverse as helping the elderly, the sick, the disabled, children, animals, mentally ill, homeless and hungry.
“I’ve discovered that looking after those vulnerable members of the community is a really fundamental part of British culture and it really changed my perspectives about British society. I now honestly think that British people are some of the kindest and nicest people in the world.”
Renyi is genuinely passionate about her work for The Red Cross and how it has helped and influenced her over the past 12 months.
“You meet some of the most interesting people in the world in charity shops. Local working class mums and immigrants who have to make their money stretch to clothe themselves and their families. Wealthy patrons who donate high-end designer clothes that they simply don’t wear any more. People clearing out the possessions of deceased relatives, middle-class hipsters looking for vintage and retro clothes and trinkets. It really is the most extraordinary kaleidoscope of society.
“And I love meeting them all,” she adds.
There is no way you can fail to be impressed by Renyi. She is compassionate and warm and sincere. The perfect antidote to the bitter rain outside still pounding against the windows of the lobby. I’m curious where she sees herself in the future.
“My dream job would be to work where I can use my interest in economics in a way that can help to improve people’s lives. I would love to work for a big intragovernmental organisation like the UN but I know it’s a very competitive place to get into. My family think I should become an accountant.”
I recoil at the suggestion and suspect I am unable to conceal the look of disappointment on my face. I may have only known Renyi for a short time but I already know enough to know that so much of her personality would be wasted as an accountant. She has too much empathy and compassion and people skills to be stuck behind a spreadsheet in an office. They can surely be put to better use.
“Just because something is difficult to achieve, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try for it,” I remind her.
“True,” she smiles as she pours a fresh cup of green tea.
“Organisations like the UN really like candidates with economics and political backgrounds,” I say. “Preferably candidates with a combination of both. You’ve got the economics side cornered but the politics angle, that’s a bit more tricky.”
“Actually, this summer I did an internship with the UK government. I was working for Andrea Leadsom who is a Conservative Member of Parliament and Leader of the House of Commons.”
“Really?!” I ask. “That’s incredible. Of course, I know who Andrea Leadsom is, she’s one of the most senior figures in British government.”
“Yes, it was a fantastic experience. I spent half of my time in London in the British Parliament and half of my time in her constituency in Northamptonshire.”
“What were you doing for her?”
“I was part of her communications team. Along with another girl called Annabelle and our supervisor, Tommy, I was responsible for reading and drafting responses to Angela Leadsom’s correspondence from her constituents. It was a really fascinating experience.
“People in the UK have a close connection to their politicians and they really care about issues that affect them. I read letters from constituents on subjects ranging from international relations to arguments with neighbours! British politicians really have to work hard to try to keep all of their constituents happy!”
“What was the most interesting thing about the experience?” I ask.
“It was certainly interesting learning more about how the British political system works and seeing how the government operates. The House of Commons and the House of Lords are really old and fascinating institutions. But the most valuable thing was actually just working with locals, learning about the British working environment, their office culture and social culture. It’s quite different to the culture in China and that was really interesting.”
“Well, it sounds like you are on the right track for a job in the UN, you’re certainly heading in the right direction.”
“The next step in the journey is to complete a Master’s degree,” she says. “I’m applying now.”
“What programme are you applying for?” I ask.
“Political Economy of Europe at the LSE,” she says. “If I really want to be able to help people and communities improve their lives, economics on its own is too theoretical. By studying this programme I can understand how economic theories work in reality when applied to political systems and societies. I think this will give me a good story to tell when it comes to applying to the top intragovernmental development organisations.”
I can’t help the smile that creeps across my face. Renyi is applying to study my old major at my old university. I feel proud that such an intelligent and impressive person will be following in my footsteps.
It is clear to me that Renyi is destined for great things. She has all the ingredients. She is personable, humorous, intelligent, adventurous, independent and curious about the world. I ask her one final question.
“So, if you have become so well adjusted to UK culture from living in Liverpool I have to ask you: are you a red or a blue?” referring to the colours of Liverpool’s two famous football clubs in a city where football passions and rivalry run in people’s blood.
“It seems you haven’t learnt all that much about Chinese culture during your time here,” she smiles mischievously at me, “I’m Chinese, of course I support the reds.”