"Now, do you agree with Zhang’s decision?"

I’m facing the white board at the front of the classroom, and behind me a straight line of quietly whispering students in matching blue and orange uniforms stretches out to the far wall.  

"If you do agree, move to the right; if not, move to the left." I put out an arm in one direction and then another to illustrate, while my interpreter—a bright, young graduate student named Alina—swiftly translates.

"And if you’re not sure…you can stay in the middle. Ready? GO!" I hear the sounds of shuffling feet and muffled laughter behind me as the teens, mostly 15 to 18 years old, sort out their decisions. I begin to count down from five.

"…3-2-1. Stop!"

I turn around. The neat line has broken apart, showing students’ feelings about the decision made by a character, Zhang, in the scenario I just read. Most have gone off to the right, a handful moved to the left, and one brave, uncertain soul has stayed in the middle. I eye him and nod, saying "Hmmm" mock seriously and with eyebrows raised as I  walk slowly toward him. The class giggles. I hand him the green plastic "speaking" ball. We look at each other and smile.  

I ask: "Can you tell me why?"

I’m in Zhengzhou, China. I’m visiting IYF partner BN Vocational School (BNVS) and teaching a lesson about decision making from our life skills curriculum, Passport to Success®. The lesson lets kids explore the who, what, how, and why of making good decisions, especially at work.

Young people at nine BNVS schools across China study trades ranging from construction to child care. In Yinchuan, home to a Muslim minority, they can even take courses in halal cooking. Students live full-time at the school too—in student-maintained, impeccably clean and orderly dormitories.

When BNVS started in 2005, the concept of a free, non-profit vocational school was so unheard of that staff often faced resistance from skeptical families and communities. But now, having placed thousands of students in good jobs, their results speak for themselves, and that skepticism is a thing of the past.  

Working with the Harry Winston Hope Foundation under the Brilliant Futures initiative, for the past four years IYF has trained BNVS teachers on using Passport to Success lessons like the one I’m teaching. This training helps students develop the life skills—like self-confidence and conflict management—that are crucial to not only getting, but keeping jobs. What they learn can have long-lasting ripple effects for students and their families, many of whom are perched on the edge of poverty.

Over a filling dim-sum lunch on my last day, BNVS’s charismatic and creative founder, Yaoi Li, tells me that in the past decade, vocational schools like theirs have become more common in China, although many do not place the same emphasis BNVS does on teacher training and quality. As always, it’s this next problem that interests her the most—how to take what they’ve learned at BNVS and improve institutional quality across the board. Impressed by her ambitious thinking, I leave China feeling inspired and satisfied.

Colton Hubbard is Program Manager, North Africa and Eurasia.