When Chinese student Shuaungle Chen, incoming Class of 2016, wanted to apply to college in the U.S. he turned to AKAD, a college prep company run by Hai Chao Wu ‘13.
“I had no idea how to apply to colleges in the U.S., but through some friends and upper-class students I learned about Hai Chao, who has successfully entered one of the top colleges in the U.S and was in China helping students like me,” said Chen.
Wu ‘13 runs a college prep company in Ningo, China (near Shanghai) that offers SAT/TOEFL prep, personal consulting, and application and visa assistance to students applying to study in the U.S.
“Swarthmore was very influential in my decision to start a company because it teaches you how to make a social impact,” he said.
Wu started the company in the summer of 2010 after meeting his former business partner Alex Grove at an entrepreneurship panel in 2009.
“I was brave enough to approach him after the conference and tell him I was interested in starting a company,” he said. Wu came to Swarthmore with the intention of going into finance, but then decided he wanted to make a difference in another field.
“Education is different,” Wu said, “because it’s a place where you can make dreams happen.”
Wu also wanted to teach Chinese students about the benefits of a liberal arts education, how “to think critically and be open minded” — skills he thinks Chinese students lack.
Running a company while studying at Swarthmore doesn’t leave Wu with much free time. He was originally in the Class of 2012; however, for the past two years, Wu has spent the fall semester in China, a busy time for college applications, and he is now in the Class of 2013.
“It has become super hard to stay in school. Every day after 11:00 p.m. I log into the company’s internal system and talk to my partners and answer emails,” he said.
Wu spends two to three hours a day doing work for the company. He gives an SAT class via Skype every Friday from 12pm to 2am.
“I have no problem finishing my schoolwork but I have a problem meeting my expectations [for that schoolwork],” said Wu.
Wu explains that his company operates in various steps. First, students sign up for a personal consultation with him to go over their interests, in order to find the type of school that would fit them best. Then he gives them an application timeline that maps out the application process they must follow.
But the process doesn’t stop there. After a student has been accepted to a university or college, Wu gives them what he calls “college prep,” or advice about life in the United States and American college life.
“We are basically the bridge between Chinese students and American colleges,” he said.
“There were lots of companies that did university recruiting and that collected a commission from universities when they placed students,” said Darryl Martin, Wu’s second founding and current partner, “but very few that did what we do.”
AKAD now has three offices in Mainland China and employs 18 people, including six American consultants. Last year, the company helped 17 Chinese students get into U.S colleges and universities. This year that number increased to 60 students and next year the staff is projecting to serve between 80 and 100 clients.
“China is pretty liberal right now and the government is accepting the fact that more and more students are going abroad, so they have no reason to hinder the process,” said Wu. Nevertheless, there are two challenges that the company has to overcome: a super-competitive business market and bribery.
“[Students and parents] bring you “thank you money” so you will make up a fake identification for a student. I don’t do it because I don’t want to sacrifice my moral integrity,” he said.
As for the company’s future, Wu hopes to expand internationally in two to three years, while partner Martin seeks to transform the business into a multi-service education company with national coverage.
In order to offer their services to more people, the company is creating a scholarship program so that they can provide their assistance free of charge to exceptionally talented students who might not have the means to afford the services otherwise.
“The past 18 months of my life have been a transformative experience,” said Wu. He hopes students at Swarthmore follow this example and take on challenges and projects outside their immediate community.
“I suggest to my peers at Swarthmore to open their minds to the real world and not be afraid to take challenges, because I found the value of my Swarthmore education by putting myself outside my comfort zone,” he said.
As for Chen, he will be arriving this fall with the incoming class and hopes to study engineering and get involved with the Lang Center. He says it’s his fellow Swattie and teacher Wu who got him thinking about social justice issues.
Correction: Wu was initially referred to as a sophomore in the headline.