Defeating limitations with big dreams

Wang may have been disabled, but that doesn’t stop him from taking risks

by AZALEA AZUAR/ pic credit: UWC China

Wang taking a photo with Queen Sonja (left) and King Harald V (right) during the royal couple’s visit to UWC Changshu China on Oct 19, 2018

WANG Jiapeng, known to the world as Mark Wang, was just an ordinary child who had a happy ordinary life. A plane crash, somehow, changed his destiny. Forever.

It happened in the summer of 1993 when Wang was on board the China Northwest Airlines Co Ltd’s flight 2119 from his hometown of Yinchuan to Beijing.

“Together with my father, we were travelling to the seaside where I’d always dreamed of going…By the way, I came from an inland city in China, so to see the ocean at that time was like a big fairy tale!” he said.

The BAe 146 jet crashed into a lake and broke apart right after its second attempted take-off from Yinchuan.

Of the 108 passengers and five crew members on board the plane, 59 people did not survive the incident. Wang was one of the survivors. Unfortunately, he was left disabled for life.

The accident severely injured his spinal column, which left Wang paralysed from the waist down.

“When the plane crashed, I was very fortunate…Together with my father, I survived. So I always consider myself a very lucky person, since 60% to 70% of the people on that plane are no longer with us,” he said.

Wang spent five years of his childhood in a rehabilitation centre. “That’s where I actually started to appreciate how wonderful it was to be able to carry a bag and go to school. Sometimes, I had friends who would say that they had a boring day at school…when that was one of my biggest dreams,” Wang said.

While he sat on his wheelchair, he dreamed that one day he would be able to be independent and walk on crutches — one of the requirements to go to public school in China.

Apparently, there was no lift at schools in China and students were expected to be independent enough to get around, climbing up and down flights of staircases.

“School is one of the most wanted places for me in my heart. That’s where I developed my passion for education,” Wang said.

Receiving a Scholarship to Norway

In 1996, the current reigning monarch of Norway, King Harald V and Queen Sonja had their state visit to China.

As a patron of the Red Cross Nordic United World College (RCNUWC), the Norwegian Queen extended a scholarship to 400 students.

Wang was one of the 400 students who gained the scholarship which he described as “the most amazing years of my life”.

“I never imagined I would obtain a scholarship since my mom was trying to knock on doors of hundreds of different schools just to get her son, who could only walk slowly with crutches, accepted. She got rejected,” he said.

Wang also never thought that he would end up studying abroad at United World College (UWC) in Norway, a country that he knew very little about.

“I still remember vividly during my first arrival, after travelling by plane and bus all the way to the west coast of Norway.

“I ended up in a little village where students came from over 80 nations staying in a little community. And that was the time that I really enjoyed my life,” he reminisced.

University life not only gave Wang a rigorous education, but it also helped him develop his holistic abilities that also gave him strong self-belief.

“These abilities help me build an international institution as I am able to see the matters and issues at different angles when I’m acting as a national congress deputy. It also helps me understand that we need to keep on learning,” he said.

Wang may have been disabled, but that didn’t stop him from taking risks.

One day, his principal asked him if he would like to join a mountain climbing expedition.

“‘Do you want to join us or you have a choice to remain and stay with your cosy Norwegian host family?’ he asked. I did take the challenge. I did learn how to ski and even to the extent that I won two gold medals in biathlon and in cross country,” Wang said.

He also won two gold medals at the 36th Disabled Ski Championship in 1999 during his time in UWC in Norway.

We are the Chairman of Our Lives

Wang has very powerful messages to deliver. In his words, “we are the ones to determine our own future”.

“Every single one of you is the chairman of your own life because you are the one that knows what decision to make that will reflect your vision, your dreams or what you simply lack,” he said.

Wang added that those who play an important role in our lives, such as our teachers, parents and friends, are our “board members”.

“It is your own life. It is you who have a dream. It is you who decide how to spend an hour in your life.

“Often, you think that the kids who sit next to you are smarter. But when I was involved in the plane accident, it reduced my capability of memorising,” he said.

Apparently, the China Northwest Airlines flight 2119 accident not only paralysed Wang, but it also damaged a part of his brain, making him less capable of memorising facts.

“The most challenging moment is not when you feel physically constraint, but when you feel you’re alone and when you think that your dream is just a dream,” he said.

Although Wang speaks relatively good English, back when he started studying in Norway, he struggled to master the language.

“When I went to UWC, I simply could not read a full passage without finding a hundred words which I struggled to find their meaning.”

I had 2 crutches, US$200 in my pocket and 2 suitcases, but a big dream. Don’t ever underestimate the power of your own dream

From Dreams to Reality

Being an alumnus of UWC, Wang has always dreamed of opening a UWC campus in mainland China. He later became a member of the UWC International Council in 2008 and then founded the UWC National Committee of China. He also became the chairman of the committee in 2010.

Finally, he founded UWC Changshu China in 2015. Of course, the deeds achieved were not without challenges.

“I just graduated from UWC and as a high school graduate, I told my principal that I had this dream. I told him that I wanted to one day build a university and asked if he would support me.

“At that time, most of my schoolmates were more concerned with securing a job first,” Wang said.

When he told his schoolmates that he wanted to build a university, they thought he was crazy.

“I had two crutches, US$200 (RM800) in my pocket and two suitcases, but a big dream. Don’t ever underestimate the power of your own dream. You need to think and form a dream.

“I think you will be amazed at how many people in this world share the same dream, which is to make this world a better place,” he said.

Wang finally returned to China in the summer of 2008 to pursue his dream of building a university.

“When I started to build the campus in China, I had to go through a process of getting people who didn’t know what we were doing and people who recognised that we’re actually doing something,” he said.

Wang also said the challenges of having a big dream was that he ended up feeling so small, and wondering what to do.

“I found myself with a big dream, but very small in my ability in delivering that dream. I also discovered that it was even more difficult when you were hit with reality.

“You’d start to actually meet people who think that you were sinking. Your belief is impossible to achieve. You hit the wall 20 times. And you actually say that it is impossible to achieve.”

Wang even went to see the ministries in China to build an International Baccalaureate (IB) school that would give opportunities to students from more than 100 nations who did not have the financial ability to pay for their education.

Incorporating Good Habits

Have you ever encountered a situation when you forgot to take your medicine, switch off the bathroom lights or even lock your car?

Well, Wang had introduced an interesting trick on how to build a good habit. What one needs to do is repeat it on a daily basis over 21 times.

It happened when he was undergoing his rehabilitation period as a child.

“When I was at the hospital, I had to wake up every day and go for acupuncture and training. I had to do all these things that I didn’t want to, but they were right for me at that time.

“I took that as a part of my learning basis. It’s good for you, but it’s not in the list of things you enjoy that much,” said Wang.

For instance, we might have difficulty trying to wake up early in the morning at six, especially in the first few days of our attempt.

After a while, we would find that it’s not so bad and eventually, we’d be able to wake ourselves up without the aid of the smartphone or alarm clock.

“Imagine that if you are determined to make it your habit — something that you think you must do — you will see the power of yourself. And again, you will discover that there’s more in you than you believed,” said Wang.

The Next Step…

“Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get,” Wang said, quoting the iconic line from the Academy Award’s winning film “Forrest Gump”, to show that he is open to new possibilities.

As for now, he would like to explore education and help more young and brilliant individuals who would like to reach their dreams in helping the world.

“I’d like to meet more of the brilliant educators on how to make education more affordable, accessible and high quality such as the IB programme,” Wang explained.

He said the world today is complex with a lot of challenges. As an interpreter himself, he would be using his personal investment to empower more young graduates and students who would one day be able to come up with solutions to address the world’s problems.

“When the students graduate, they also need good mentors and investors to help them reach their dreams. So I’d like to create a high-quality education,” Wang said with a strong conviction.