Getting into a top grad school in New York is tough — and the sky-high tuition fees are even more brutal.
Sperm banks and street art: how I crowdfunded my dream NYC education
It seemed impossible for Deng Linjie, a struggling calligraphy artist from a tiny town in central China's Shanxi province.
He was overjoyed when Manhattan’s prestigious School for Visual Arts accepted him onto its fine arts graduate program, but quickly fell into despair when traditional sources in China turned him down for loans.
His American dream could have ended there, but Deng had a brainwave: crowdsourcing loans from social media users.
It took just a week to raise the cash and Deng went off to school, cooking up various money-making schemes to pay his donors back – including selling his art on the streets and even donating sperm.
The 25-year-old artist tells Inkstone about his crowdfunded journey from provincial China to the Big Apple.
When I was six years old, I started studying Chinese calligraphy and traditional painting. My mom ran a fireworks store in my home province, Shanxi, in central China. I knew my family wasn’t rich and the limits by which I was bound. My grad school tuition fees were around $110,000 in total. My family and I could only come up with a little over $30,000. I felt like there was a sign that said: “World-famous university is off-limits for Linjie.”
What could I do? I wasn’t going to hold a knife to my mom’s throat then make her smash our iron pots and pans into pieces to sell, in order to pay my tuition fees. No one can force their parents to pick up the tab for their personal dreams when it’s beyond the family’s economic situation. The only thing I had left was myself. So I decided to sell myself.
I tried to convince people I was trustworthy by promising 20 percent interest on what I borrowed from them. If they gave me $100, I would pay back $120 after two years and give them a piece of Chinese calligraphy. If they loaned me $1,000, I would pay back $1,200 and give them a Chinese stamp with their name on it. I posted a nine-page letter on Chinese social media introducing myself, my family background, and my problem.
After the first day, I received almost $20,000 in loans. A lot of people commented, shared, and liked my posts on Weibo and WeChat. Many of them supported me. But others didn’t trust me. People said I was shameless; that if I didn’t have the money, I shouldn’t go abroad.
After days of reading negative comments, I felt so sick that I couldn’t even breathe. I was freaking out and thought about giving up. I just wanted to be a normal person. I didn’t want any trouble. But in the end, I thought about all the effort I had put in. Why should I give up because of what other people thought? Within a week, I’d received $80,000 from 239 people across the world, which was enough for me to go to New York.
A lot of my donors were very kind. They wanted to help support my dream and didn’t even want the 20 percent interest. One of my friends gave me the first $100. He told me he didn’t need me to pay him back, asking only that I give him tickets for my future art exhibitions. Still, I knew I had a lot of money to pay back. It was tough for me.
In addition to studying, I held down a part-time job at my school library. I also sold my Chinese calligraphy and traditional paintings on the streets of New York. On the weekends, I taught what I had learned in school to Chinese students online, helped Chinese students apply to US universities, designed websites and logos for companies, and did social marketing for a bar. I even sold my sperm to a sperm bank.
I didn’t want to become a money-making machine. As an international student, I wanted to share what I learned and saw in New York with young Chinese people.
I chose my major — design for social innovation — because I wanted to use design and business to solve social issues. In China, this kind of major would make you sound like a troublemaker, so you can’t do that. We don’t have enough freedom in China to discuss certain social issues. But in New York, everybody is so creative and the city is diverse. I have a lot of freedom. This is the biggest difference between being in China and the US. This freedom is important for designers and artists.
Three years ago, I was a regular undergraduate student in Beijing. Nobody knew me. I just wanted to study abroad. Then I had so many people online yell at me and insult me. The most important lesson I learned is that the world is not all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a mean and nasty place.
New York, especially, is a tough city. It will beat you to your knees. But it’s not about how hard you get hit; it’s about getting hit and continuing to move forward. That’s how you win. Now that I know what I’m worth, I’m going to go out and get it.
As told to Sarah Zheng