On a beautiful Sunday in late March, while the trees were starting to bloom and most sane people were out in the city’s parks enjoying the season of renewal, 20 or so high school students – a cross section of Beijing’s international schools – crammed themselves into a stuffy, windowless conference room to hammer out the details of the next UNIT-E magazine. Fueled by spent plates of giant waffles and mugs of caffeine-laced beverages, this all-volunteer student crew forsook their free time to ensure that the latest issue reached production and that the precious few 1,000 copies of UNIT-E got to those schools fortunate enough to receive them. Co-founder and editor-in-chief Katherine Tsen, a senior at the International School of Beijing (ISB), explained that they don’t have nearly enough copies to meet demand. "At ISB, if I put out 200 copies in the morning, they are gone by the next day. All I can do is send people to the website." Tsen added, "I’m always surprised that people want to read the magazine and use the articles."
If you don’t attend high school, it’s not surprising that you’ve never heard of this in-demand publication. UNIT-E was first published one year ago, after two students at Beijing World Youth Academy (BWYA) had the idea of a publication that connects international school students – not just their school or a few schools, but all of the schools. Co-foundersAmelia Zhang and Ernest Li (now seniors at BWYA) could have created a page on Facebook, started a website, or tried a host of other options that would have been far simpler to accomplish, but instead they settled on the idea of a non-profit magazine dedicated to helping students reach their potential while providing a means of communication for the Beijing international student community.
Not satisfied with just a magazine, they also decided to plow any profits from the upstart publication into a school for migrant workers’ children where UNIT-E staff and readers are also encouraged to volunteer their time. Considering how busy Beijing’s high school students are with classes, homework and after-school activities, it would not have been unusual for the idea to fizzle. Instead, the UNIT-E team has continued to grow and develop with each hurdle that they have faced.
Zhang explained that since they produced their first issue in May of 2010, UNIT-E has involved around 70 students, 30 of whom are regularly active. Amid those involved is a dedicated core team of nine who ensure that the content, advertising, finances and distribution happen on time. Well, nearly on time. Tsen has had to use some extreme measures to get content written by even her own editorial staff, going so far as to have a mutual friend contact a column editor who was avoiding a deadline and not picking up her phone. Like any seasoned editor, Tsen has learned to pad her deadlines and have contingency plans if someone fails to deliver on a story.
Despite the trials of filling the content of each issue, both Tsen and Zhang agree that the biggest hurdle they face is an ongoing financial one. "In the beginning, we went to Lucky Street and talked to the managers and asked them if they wanted to advertise in our magazine. Of course, none of them did, but we learned a lot from those encounters,"says Zhang.
They went home, created an advertising pack, worked on their sales pitches and eventually landed their first sponsor. Zhang’s school, BWYA has also been a regular sponsor, but the financial cost of even an all-volunteer publication with a mere print run of 1,000 is still substantial. Zhang explained that until they got their marketing collateral down pat, they would play rock-paper-scissors to decide who was going to make cold calls to potential advertisers. One student got so good at selling ad space that a business owner accused him of not being part of a student magazine and of trying to swindle money out of her company.
Simply getting a magazine published is already a bigger feat than most high school students would contemplate, but the UNIT-E founders didn’t stop there. They believe that the international student community in Beijing should not merely be cultural interlopers, but should also be involved in contributing to society.
Consequently, the decision was made to help fund the school for migrant workers’ children in Shunyi. Since money alone does not solve problems (and the magazine has little of it), they also began volunteering their time to help tutor the kids. For many of the volunteers, the experience has been rewarding, but it is a challenge to get downtown students to commit to traveling to Shunyi on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, the goal of supporting the school has taken longer to develop as the needs of the magazine itself command the lion’s share of the team’s resources. But things continue to improve and Zhang and Tsen foresee a time when UNIT-E will be able to increase its distribution, bring on more sponsors and raise more funds for the school.
Zhang would like to expand the printing to at least 5,000 copies. Tsen explained that a print run of 5,000 is the lowest number of copies most advertisers are willing to purchase advertising space in. The problem is that the magazine cannot afford to expand printing yet, so for now they are still working on reaching that goal. "We also have thought about taking the magazine to other cities in China, but for now we are focused on Beijing," adds Zhang.
The other hurdle fast approaching the founders is one of succession. Zhang, Tsen and Li will all graduate soon and are already making plans for life beyond high school. Within the dedicated core members of the UNIT-E staff, the next editor-in-chief has been identified, but the foundersstill need to decide how to delegate the tasks and responsibilities that they have been managing until now.
They are still looking for those talented and dedicated souls that will take the baton and keep clearing hurdles as UNIT-E continues its goal of uniting to empower; a goal they have managed without any adult supervision.