It is probably safe to say that Kelly Yang has so far done everything early in life. The former child prodigy, who moved to the United States from Tianjin when she was six, entered the University of California, Berkeley, at 13 before going on to Harvard Law School at 17, graduating at the age of 20.
Now, a mother of two, the 26-year-old runs the Kelly Yang Project (KYP), a Hong Kong-based, award-winning after-school programme for students that focuses on English creative thinking, writing and critical reasoning. Along the way, Yang has won a string of accolades and awards – California Legislature's 2000 Woman of the Year, Asian-Pacific Americans in Higher Education Scholar, and CosmoGIRL of the Year. She is also on the board of directors of The Harvard Club of Hong Kong.
What was it like to go to college at 13?
Going to college at 13 was an exhilarating and nerve-wrecking experience. It was exciting in that I was challenged every day, never bored, and always eager to learn more and prove myself. But it was also nerve-wracking because I had to improve and mature fast intellectually and emotionally. I literally had to grow up in five minutes.
Why did you move on to law school?
I loved writing and law school was a natural next step for political science majors who were great writers. Also because, coming out of college, I was only 17 and clearly not ready to work.
I quickly saw that most of the graduates became corporate lawyers. Most did it for the money but a lot did it because it was the thing to do. Just to be clear, a corporate lawyer is not the feisty and fashionable criminal lawyers we see on TV shows. The job of a corporate lawyer, to me, was dry and boring. The work may sound impressive but when you get down to it, it is just a lot of form-filling, arguing over tiny details and looking over paperwork. I needed something more creative and fun which would require more people skills and make me laugh at least once an hour. It was a tough decision to give up law to be a teacher – my peers, professors and family thought I was crazy. But it was the best decision I ever made.
I like to bring up [the fact that my first job was working for myself] whenever I meet anyone from business school. The whole idea of going to school to learn business is weird. The fact is, you can never really learn how to run a business. You just have to do it.
Why did you set up Kelly Yang Project after finishing law school?
As we all know, Asian education is traditionally quite boring, with a lot of rote learning and tedious studying. I wanted to inspire kids in Asia to be creative, think outside the box, and look at what is going on in the world with a critical eye. In the process, I wanted them to become better writers and public speakers. Hong Kong, with its warm acceptance of new ideas and proximity to the mainland, would be the best place to start KYP.
Right from the start, our programme was a huge success. Parents like it because we get students higher test scores and we get them accepted into top universities. Students like it because it’s incredibly fun, interactive and stimulating. We're now in our fifth year and our programme is more popular than ever!
What are your responsibilities?
First and foremost, I am a teacher at KYP. I also oversee my team of teachers and handle administrative matters. At KYP, we take great pride in the quality of the teaching and materials. What makes our programme different is all our teachers are full-time with us. So a big part of our day is getting together as teachers, discussing students and student work, and reviewing and improving how we teach. We do this every single day.
I also write a column for the South China Morning Post on education, and give talks regularly at the city, regional and international levels, on topics such as the US college admissions process, the International Baccalaureate system, and how to foster a love of literature and writing in children. Of all my responsibilities, by far my favourite is teaching.
What was the biggest challenge you have encountered?
For me, every one of our students is my “biggest challenge”. Every student is different. Some hate writing when they first start out with us. Some even hate thinking! One of the problems is our kids live in an over-stimulated generation that frequently doesn't really care much about anything – especially here in Hong Kong. It turns out that if you show a kid that something is so exciting – even something like writing – eventually they will get excited, too. It may take a while. You need to have patience and a lot of passion. But eventually, they’ll put down their PSPs and iPhones and engage. And when that happens, the rest is easy. That moment is the most rewarding of all because I know that I've just turned a kid on to learning! What could be better than that?
What was the turning point in your life, and career, respectively?
An important turning point for me in my life and my career, believe it or not, was when I became a mom. I am the mother of two young boys. They make me laugh. Sometimes they make me cry. But they always make my day beautiful. Being a mother has helped me in my career because in my business, I interact with mothers all day long. So it’s very important I understand what they need and where they are coming from. And as a mom, I totally do!
What would you say is your biggest achievement so far?
There are a few things I am very proud of besides starting KYP and having my two adorable boys – finally being able to drive (after having failed the driver’s license test an embarrassing number of times), learning to ski, being an excellent baker (I can make scrumptious desserts), and knowing how to make double-sided, collated booklets on our office copier.