Our connection with Yangjuan and Pianshui villages began in 1993, when CMEF founder Stevan Harrell, a University of Washington anthropologist, first conducted research in Yangjuan and Pianshui with Yangjuan native Mgebbu Lunzy (Ma Erzi).
In the mid-1990s, Steve introduced Lunzy to Benoît Vermander, a Jesuit priest who was studying Nuosu religion. After Lunzy and Benoît completed a book project together, Benoît expressed his desire to give something back to the Nuosu community. Lunzy, Benoît, and Steve discussed possible projects, and decided to raise money to found an elementary school in Yangjuan. This goal came to fruition in September 2000 with the opening of the Yangjuan Primary School. Benoît, Steve, Lunzy, CMEF board member Li Xingxing, Nuosu scholar Bamo Ayi, and Lunzy’s nephew Mgebbu Vihly were original members of the School’s Supervisory Committee.
Around the time the primary school was being built, Steve was approached by Professor Gretchen Kalonji of the University of Washington College of Engineering about participating in a prospective student exchange with a Chinese university, which would send students from China to the US and from the US to China to work on environmental research projects. They decided to choose Sichuan University as their partner.
When the first group of students from UW went to China in 2002, Steve, along with Professors Tom Hinckley and Dick Olmstead, took a group of UW and Sichuan University Students to Yangjuan to do research on biodiversity, forest ecology, health and nutrition, and the local economy. Since then, students, along with Yangjuan and Pianshui people, have conducted research projects every year in and around Yangjuan and Pianshui.
Many of the students who lived and studied in Yangjuan felt a strong connection to the community and a strong desire to help Yangjuan Primary School. In Fall of 2004, Katharine Liang, who had done wolf ecology research in the mountains above Yangjuan and Pianshui, knew that the first class would graduate from the 6th grade at Yanjugan the following summer, and that they would need help if they were to continue to middle school. Katharine proposed that professors, students, and alumni of Yangjuan-Pianshui research compile a calendar featuring some of the spectacular photos they had taken during their stay in the area, and sell the calendar to raise money to fund scholarships for these students, and to support Yangjuan School and the local community in other ways. Successful sales of the 2005 calendar led to the official incorporation in July 2005 of the Cool Mountain Education Fund.
Steve became the first President. The other original board members were Barbara Grub, Tami Blumenfield, and Victoria Poling. Over the years, Phil Chi, Deborah Sung, Geoffrey Morgan, Lauren Brown, Katharine Liang, Joanne Ho, Eddie Schmitt and Nancy Meenen have also done dedicated service as board members.
From 2005 through 2018, CMEF has granted over 500 annual scholarships to graduates of Yangjuan School, helped pay teachers’ salaries and bonuses, supplemented curricula with locally relevant content, and supported Nuosu language education.
Yangjuan School closed in 2016, as people moved out of Yangjuan and Pianshui villages, and as schools with more modern facilities became accessible to those who remained. Through the efforts of board member Dr. Aga Rehamo, we have begun supporting new programs in girls’ health education at Zeyue Elementary School in Xide County, and in trilingual Nuosu-Chinese-English education for fourth through sixth graders at Zeyue School and at a school in Puge County.
We are also still providing scholarships for students from poor families. Through our “Pay it Forward” program, former scholarship recipients who are now teaching elementary and middle school all over the Cool Mountains are nominating their own students for scholarship support. We have supported eight students in the 2020-21 school year, and plan to continue and modestly expand this program in the coming years.