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Documentary Recounts Professor's Impact on Girls' Education in Rural China

Posted Feb. 28, 2011 | Sarah Lack

Guanlan’s Sisters: A Family Journal is a documentary about hope, strength and empowerment. It is about the passion of a woman who believes in the power of education and her journey to incite change in one of China’s poorest regions.

That woman is Kent State’s own Vilma Seeberg, associate professor of education, who 11 years ago traveled to China to speak at a university about education and girls in the 21st century. It was during that trip that Seeberg started a scholarship foundation to help Chinese girls in the rural, poverty-stricken mountain areas of the country.

“I donated the honorarium from my speech to start the scholarship,” Seeberg says. “Since then, it has continued to grow. The girls write regularly, and we can keep track of how it’s impacting their lives.”

Named after her adopted daughter, the Guanlan Scholarship Foundation has provided the funds to educate more than 70 girls who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to attend school.

Seeberg has always been interested in cross-cultural research on girls’ education, and has been a scholar of Chinese education for nearly 37 years. In 1998, she and her husband adopted a baby girl from the country. Her research brought her to the mountains of China, where she experienced the abject poverty of the region.

“Many people live on less than one dollar a day,” Seeberg says. “There’s no heat, no running water, no transportation. The kids walk to school, even in the winter. It’s hard to imagine.”

Still, Seeberg felt that she could help the girls living in the villages.

“I have always felt that if we do research anywhere, we should give back,” she said. “I was able to adopt a Chinese girl. I wanted to help more girls improve their status.”

Last summer, a concrete road to the village was finally finished, and Seeberg and her family were able to visit the homes and families that were helped by the scholarship. Their journey is documented in Guanlan’s Sisters: A Family Journal.

The documentary aired recently on WVIZ/ideaStream. Further air dates are to be determined.

“Being able to watch these girls develop into young women and make something of their lives has been really rewarding,” Seeberg said. “It has been more rewarding than the long-term results of any research.”

The scholarships give the girls enough foundational education so that they are able to get training to support a family and lift themselves out of poverty. Some of the girls have gone on to attend junior colleges.

“They want to learn and are willing to sacrifice a lot to learn,” Seeberg says. “Some of these girls are very creative in getting the resources needed to further their education, like bank loans to pay for college.”

Seeberg has also watched her 13-year-old daughter, Zoë Guanlan, begin to understand her role in the project.

“She came from here, and she is learning that she can give back,” Seeberg says. “For her to be involved in this takes it to a much higher level.”

In total, more than 70 girls have received an education because of the Guanlan Scholarship Foundation. Seeberg hopes that the documentary will increase Americans’ understanding of China and its people, and also send the message to the Chinese that the education of girls is important to the development of the rural areas, where boys are still preferred. She has seen firsthand the change in the villages because of the girls.

“It’s like the whole village is having some hope for a future they can’t predict yet,” Seeberg concludes. “There is more pride, more hope. They know things are changing, and that their daughters are changing them.”

To learn more about the Guanlan Scholarship Foundation or for information on how to donate to the scholarship fund, visit