Student Profiles: Xuan
There are very few occasions a person can truly describe as monumental, as life changing. Something which alters your trajectory entirely and unstoppably. A moment that you can point to and say, it was then. That was the instant that everything changed. That was the moment from which point my life would never again be the same. That is what happened when I met Xuan.
It was in a small meeting room off the executive lounge in the Sofitel in Ningbo, China. I was visiting for a few days from Beijing and my colleague had asked me if I would meet a girl he knew for half an hour and have a quick chat while I was in town. She was aspiring to do a masters in the UK and had applied to several schools but failed to receive an offer from any of them. My colleague figured that since I was British and had done a masters myself I might be able to figure out if she was up to scratch and, if so, give her a bit of advice. No sweat, happy to help.
I was working on my laptop with my back to a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the entire city, bathed beautifully in shimmering spring sunshine, when there was a gentle tap on the door and in walked Xuan. If she was a mouse she couldn’t have been much quieter. She was tall but her shoulders were hunched and her head was down staring at her feet. She shuffled softly into the doorway as I rose to greet her with my arm outstretched but she barely raised her eyes from the floor. ‘Hello, I’m Xuan’ she mumbled faintly. My first thought was that this was going to be a long and painful half an hour. My second thought was to stop agreeing to do random favours for colleagues. I am not optimistic.
However, the die had been cast so I decide I had better try to make the best of what is shaping up to be a painful meeting. Sure enough, as Xuan barely touches my extended hand her head remains fixed on her toes. I’m pretty sure I let out a small sigh of dismay.
We sit down and I begin asking Xuan about her background, what she’s studying at university, what her hobbies and interest are etc. She is modest and clearly uncomfortable talking about herself. I discover that she’s reading for a BA in finance, accounting and management and she’s expecting to get a comfortable 2:1. Pretty respectable. Then I discover that she’s studying at a British university and that she had done an international exchange to The University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands and that her GPA was 3.9/4.0. Like pulling teeth I ask about more of her academic achievements. She’d won three scholarships, been awarded her university’s ‘Excellent Student’ prize for three consecutive years (putting her in the top one percent of the student body) and won the university student leadership award to boot. Now I’m beginning to wonder just who this woman sitting next to me is and what else I don’t know about her. She tells me that she’s the president of the Young Volunteers Association at her university and that she single handedly founded and led a group of Chinese volunteers to teach over 200 students in Nepal (building a library and science lab along the way) and she was recognised by the Chinese government for her charity work. I realise I’m sitting next to one of the highest achieving, kindest and humble people I have ever met in my life. I’m no longer despondent, I’m in silent awe.
I return to why we are here – her wish to study a masters in the UK and her failure to receive an offer at the first time of asking (as a student who was accepted to do a master’s in London with a low 2:1 and no worthwhile extracurricular experience I know she’s more than qualified). It turns out she hadn’t mentioned any of her amazing experiences in her applications, only that she wanted to be a management consultant which is fair enough in itself. I spent the next half an hour helping her revise her application materials, explaining the qualities and experiences which universities considered valuable and how to present them to show her considerable talents and skills. I discovered some weeks later that she had received offers from several schools in the UK after submitting her revised applications and had decided to take up an offer to study the MSc in Management at Cass Business School in London. I realised then that her life would never be the same, that she was going to study at a top international school and that her experience there would give her future a new and more exciting direction. And I had played a small part in that transformation. It was after that meeting, in the small meeting room off the executive lounge of the Ningbo Sofitel with a girl who couldn’t look me in the eye that I began to consider a career working with unassuming yet remarkable young Chinese people to help them achieve their potential.
And Xuan’s transformation was remarkable. She went on to graduate from her masters with flying colours and was offered a job on the KPMG graduate training scheme in Dubai which she duly took, working her way up to Senior Associate Auditor in KPMG’s financial services division before leaving to become a Finance Manager at ICBC in Dubai.
Two years ago I was travelling back to the UK via Dubai. I decided I would give Xuan a call and see how she was doing. When I entered the arrivals hall at Dubai International Airport this young woman came striding straight over to me, put her arms around me and gave me an enormous hug. And as we walked off together to get a taxi she was talking constantly and gesticulating widely telling me about her friends and colleagues, life in Dubai and how it compared to London, what she was planning on doing with her holidays. And all the while she was looking at me with a beaming smile across her face from ear to ear. I remember thinking what a confident, powerful, independent and lovely young woman this person is. And I kept thinking back to our first meeting when she couldn’t look me in the eye and I smiled. I still do.