June 6, 2008 / 8:12 AM / 11 years ago

Quake no deterrent as China students aim for college

By Lindsay Beck

CHENGDU, June 6 (Reuters) - Their books are buried under rubble, but thousands of students in quake-hit areas are as commited as ever to preparing for China’s make-or-break college entrance exams as they study in tents and makeshift schools.

More than 10 million students will this weekend take the exam, commonly known as "gaokao" in Chinese, although those in areas hit by the earthquake that killed more than 69,000 have been given an extra month to prepare.

"There was no way to recover our study materials. Here, the teachers have helped us prepare new lessons to revise," said Meng Yao, 19.

Meng is one of more than 400 students from the Pingwu Middle School who have been relocated to a university campus in Sichuan’s provincial capital, Chengdu, so they can continue their schooling and prepare for the test of their lives.

Most students sitting the exam are between 16 and 18, but in rural areas they can be older.

Liu Xianbo, one of Meng’s teachers, said the quake had made his students more hard-working than ever, despite the added hardships they must bear as they prepare for the annual rite that can determine their futures.

"Some of them have no homes any more, some have lost relatives. So it impacts their mental state. The aftershocks have also been continuous, so they’re in a very sensitive frame of mind," said Liu, 39.

Meng’s family back in Pingwu, a mountainous area north of the epicentre of the May 12 quake, is now living in tents, their homes still standing, but deemed unsafe after the tremor.

"I don’t worry about them, but I miss them," she said.

While her family is still subsisting largely on instant noodles, Meng and her classmates are doing relatively well in their temporary home on the campus of Chengdu’s Southwestern University of Finance and Economics.

Tents still line the university’s sports ground, where the students stayed for the first days after the quake, when the safety of campus dormitories was uncertain.

Now, they are among 1,100 students from around the province settled into dormitories on campus and in classes with their own teachers, sitting silently bent over their books.

Only the final-year students from Pingwu — those preparing for the gaokao — are lucky enough to be here.

The rest of their schoolmates are still back home, where classes have yet to resume.

In other quake-hit areas, schools have been set up in the tent cities housing displaced people. Many school buildings, which parents say were shoddily built, collapsed in the quake, killing thousands of children and their teachers.

In Yingxiu, all but flattened, 17 students cram into a sweltering tent, taught by volunteer Tang Cangjian, who is not himself a teacher.

"A lot of teachers sacrificed themselves for the children. In the mountain towns, we’re missing a lot of teachers," he said.

And while the quake has made some students more determined than ever to succeed, for others, priorities have changed.

Yang Jie travelled across China to volunteer in Sichuan, giving up his last weeks to prepare for the exam.

"My classmates said that volunteering might affect how we do in our university exams. But we have decided to come ... You can only help yourself if you help others," said Yang, 19.

Pingwu student Zhang Bing, also 19, said the quake changed his vision of what he might become.

"My goal was to be in the army, but now I’d like to be a doctor," said Zhang, as he filed out of class and headed to the canteen for lunch.

"So many people died. I can’t really say how it feels. It just makes me feel awful and I’d like to be able to help people."

Still, he and his classmates are excited at the chance to be in the big city.

"Of course we want to go out and see Chengdu, but we have to wait until after the gaokao," said Meng. "The teachers would be angry." (Additional reporting by Tyra Dempster; Editing by Nick Macfie)

(lindsay.beck@thomsonreuters.com; +86-10 6627-1204))

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