Two years ago, when Molly Zhao Yusi first got into Stanford, the fresh-faced teenager hosted a 90-minute video chat to talk about how she was accepted into one of the most prestigious universities in America.
“Hello everyone, I’m 17 now … I went to high school in England. This year in mid-September I’m going to Stanford … I’m really looking forward to it,” she says in fluent English, in one of a few snippets she speaks to demonstrate her proficiency in the language.
Later in the video, she says in Mandarin that people had asked if she got into Stanford because her family was rich. No, she refutes, claiming that American university admissions officers “don’t know who you are”.
This week, the Los Angeles Times named Zhao as the student whose parents paid US$6.5 million (S$8.9 million) to a consultant who helped her get a place at the college.
This is the highest amount paid to the consultant, William “Rick” Singer, who has pleaded guilty to working with corrupt coaches, university administrators and exam monitors to get the children of wealthy families into prestigious colleges.
Of the US$6.5 million paid by the Zhao family, Singer appeared to have pocketed US$6 million.
Prosecutors said that he made her out to be a competitive sailor, providing a fake list of sailing accomplishments, according to reports. Singer then made a US$500,000 donation to the school’s sailing programme after Zhao was admitted.
Zhao has since been expelled by the school.
FATHER HOLDS SINGAPORE PASSPORT
Prosecutors have also charged other parents involved in the scheme but Zhao’s parents face no charges so far, and have claimed that they were duped by Singer.
Ms Zhao’s father, Zhao Tao, a pharmaceutical mogul, is listed on Forbes as the 21st richest man in Singapore with a current net worth of US$1.8 billion. According to Forbes, the Shandong Buchang Pharmaceuticals co-founder holds a Singapore passport.
On Friday, Hong Kong-based lawyers for Zhao's mother released a statement on her behalf in which she said the payment was made but that Singer had led her to believe it was a legitimate donation that would go towards Stanford's staff salaries and scholarship programme.
"The donation is in the same nature as those that many affluent parents have been doing openly to prestigious universities," the statement read, adding they had made it a month after their daughter was accepted into Stanford.
Stanford has said in US reports that it never got the money.
CHINESE NETIZENS SLAM VIDEO
Zhao Yusi’s 2017 video is now trending in China for all the wrong reasons and attracting vitriol from Chinese netizens who mock her “advice”.
In the video, she talks about how she was a mediocre student and recounts how a British history teacher told her she should aim for a “B”. She scored an A* in the subject by “burying her head and studying hard”, she said, using a Chinese idiom.
She also talks about her love for riding horses and how she gave it up for a time to focus on studying for major examinations.
As for how she learned English? She sang along to English songs, watched American shows and “initiated conversations with foreigners”, she says.
She also chose to study in the UK, at the elite Wellington College according to reports, to learn English, she claims.
“Others may not recognise you can do it but you have to prove to them you can with your own hard work and actions,” she says at one point.
According to the Stanford Daily, she was an East Asian Studies major and a member of Stanford’s Forum for American-Chinese Exchange.
On the website of a conference she attended, it said that she was interested in China’s international educational policy and “especially intrigued by the rural-urban education inequality in China”.
A conference co-director praised her participation, saying that she did a “wonderful job” on a presentation on the US-China relationship.
She was also active in various academic programmes besides her studies, said the New York Times.
Her father also extolled the virtues of hard work, discipline and frugality in a 2015 interview with the Chinese media.
“Your ability should match your wealth. I really look down on kids who do not rely on themselves. If I see them, I will lecture them,” he said.
US$25 MILLION SCAM
The US$25 million university entrance scam, which was revealed by US prosecutors earlier this year, has seen some 50 people charged including Hollywood actors and industry CEOs.
Most of the cases that have come to light through indictments or guilty pleas have involved parents paying anywhere between US$15,000 and US$600,000 to ensure their children got into the college of their choice.
US media have reported only one other family paid Singer a seven figure sum - a Chinese family who allegedly paid US$1.2 million to get their daughter, Sherry Guo, into Yale. She has also been expelled.
American colleges are highly sought after among Chinese families and a booming industry has flourished offering consulting and test preparation advice. Chinese students have also become a hugely lucrative demographic for those colleges.