Fanmei Xia wants to use her degree from UChicago Harris to address social inequalities in access to education.
Fanmei Xia, Headshot
Fanmei Xia

Fanmei Xia is driven by her passion for social equity—especially equal access to education for all children. At age nine, Xia moved from her hometown in China to its capital city, Beijing. Though her grandfather cared for her during a portion of her first year there, she said she essentially lived on her own. “I quickly became a very independent person.”

However, Xia noted, her cousin—just six months younger than her—dropped out after middle school. Due to China’s household registration system, which classifies households as either rural or urban and distributes benefits accordingly, Xia was able to access a better public education as a nonagricultural resident. “[My cousin] is brilliant and capable, but because she was born in a rural area and girls were not considered as valuable as guys, she had a really rough childhood. She turned out to be an incredible lady, but the lack of opportunities deterred her from school.”

Shocked and humbled by the unequal access to education for her and millions of children from the same background, Xia became motivated to ensure that all people “can enjoy the same levels of opportunity.”

Xia earned a BA in Applied Psychology and Human Development and a BA in Philosophy from Boston College. She also spent a year at Oxford University, with a dual concentration in Human Sciences and Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE). Her undergraduate research focused on migrant children and their educational attainment. She and her team developed an award-winning prototype software to facilitate communication for long-distance families—targeted for the Chinese “left-behind” children and the migrant worker community. “But I realized this was only a band-aid on the bigger, more problematic structural issue.

“I saw the disconnect of research in academia and actual practice in the field, and I want to bridge that gap,” Xia said. “For a lot of the causes I want to eventually address, my impact will be greatest as a policymaker, or from using a policy lens to address structural issues.”

For a lot of the causes I want to eventually address, my impact will be greatest as a policymaker, or from using a policy lens to address structural issues.

This desire to understand the underlying structural issues of social inequalities—plus a need to develop more quantitative research skills—inspired Xia to apply to the Master of Public Policy (MPP) program at Harris. Thus far, she said she’s enjoyed her Program Evaluation course, taught by Fiona Burlig, as well as her Programming in R course, taught by Peter Ganong. Xia said that because Ganong has worked with the city government for many years, he helps his students see “how our programming skills can be translated into policymaking.

“Our problem sets are designed to solve real civic issues,” Xia said, noting this was especially valuable for someone like herself who aspires to work at an intersection of education and public policy. Xia’s particularly interested in early childhood education. “The first five years of a child’s life is a very determining time in which a lot of disparity happens.”

At Harris, Xia also serves as the co-president of Harris Student Government. Currently, the organization is working to “build a stronger sense of community [at Harris] by streamlining communication channels” and through initiatives to support students with family members and spouses, she said. The board is also working on bringing more mental health and wellness resources to the community. With the Fall quarter being hybrid, HSG is actively working with other Harris Student Organizations and the Career Development Office to ensure all students can engage with the community and get the career support from all over the world.

“I stepped outside of my comfort zone and challenged myself when I decided to run for HSG,” Xia said. “I had never run a campaign before, but the more I try new things and challenge myself, the more I push my limits. I encourage all my fellow Harris students to push themselves to see what they can accomplish.