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Business dean Woo shares ‘Herstory’

Emily Keebler | Friday, October 19, 2007

Dean Carolyn Woo showed on Thursday that she has a story to tell.

Speaking to a diverse audience in the Coleman-Morse Center Lounge, the Martin J. Gillen Dean of the Mendoza College of Business reflected on her childhood in Hong Kong and her coming to the United States as an undergraduate student.

Woo immediately engaged audience members – faculty, staff and students of various levels – with wisdom, sincerity and a touch of humor.

Although she personally has faced substantial challenges, Woo maintained that everyone has a worthwhile story.

“Every story is unique, of course, but every story is the same. … There’s a lot of common experience, especially the things that are most profound,” Woo said.

Woo’s presentation was the second in a noontime lecture series, “Telling HERstory,” sponsored by the First Year of Studies Program. The new monthly series features women serving in campus leadership roles.

Woo’s story began with her birth in Hong Kong as the fifth of six children. In a climate of political displacement, Woo learned to value life’s opportunities.

“I grew up with this sense [that] nothing is to be taken for granted. … Everything could just change places overnight,” Woo said.

Adding to the instability was Woo’s father, who, though talented and hard-working, abused alcohol, gambled and had a quick temper. Woo’s mother, like other women she knew, lived a life of fear and subordination.

“My whole goal was to never be like my mother,” Woo said. “My goal was to be independent.”

Helping her down her path were several important influences – the Catholic school she attended for 12 years and her nanny, Yao.

“My saving grace was that I was sent to this school run by American nuns,” Woo said.

There, Woo experienced the love of strangers, learned English by immersion, realized the value of expressing her thoughts and, through reading, developed her imagination.

Furthermore, the nuns “challenged us to be our very best but never to compete against each other.”

At home, Woo grew under the care of her family’s servant as well.

“My mother by and large was really quite weak … but my nanny was the opposite,” Woo said. “She had this incredible ability to find her way as a servant.”

Yao brought unique experiences to the Woo family when she began working for them as a nanny even before Woo’s birth.

“She helped me understand how servants look at things. … It was really quite a good experience,” Woo said.

As Woo grew up in “chaos countered by family routines and celebrations,” she discovered studying as a way to escape life’s challenges. Her older brother attended a university in the United States, and Woo became determined to do the same.

While her father respected her grades, he could not imagine sending his daughter to the United States. Woo said she suspects that her parents’ visit to San Francisco in the 1960s prompted their view that the country had loose morals.

Nonetheless, encouraged by her nanny, Woo persevered in her quest to receive a college education in the United States.

In an emotional moment, she told her father: “I don’t want to be a daughter. Just treat me as a son. I will accept the responsibilities of a son.”

During this time, Woo met a faculty member on leave from Purdue University and decided to apply to Purdue. She was accepted, but without her father’s help, saw no way to pay the $1,600 tuition.

Yao then revealed that she had established savings for the children. With her older sisters established in jobs and her brothers taken care of, Woo had full access to these funds. This money and the further financial support of Woo’s siblings would fund one year in college.

Woo enrolled as a student at Purdue University and entered the United States with little besides a gold bracelet, which was to be sold for a plane ticket if anything went wrong.

After she arrived in the United States, Woo was homesick but found support in the Catholic Church and great satisfaction in all that she was learning.

“Because I only had one year, I didn’t know where it would lead me,” Woo recalled. She immersed herself in university life, taking 24 credits each semester.

“It was an incredible experience because when I went to school, I didn’t fear failing … and because it was my one year, I wanted to take as many classes as possible.”

Woo humorously recounted her experiences with classes in Russian language and film, the only classes she dropped. Woo couldn’t learn Russian and often fell asleep during silent movie screenings.

Nonetheless, she persisted in her other classes, always asking at the end of a long day, “Did I learn something?”

As sophomore year approached, Woo applied for one of two international student scholarships but feared a B-grade in one course would eliminate her from the competitive applicant pool.

She received a three-year scholarship, which she used to finish a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree. She then completed a Ph.D. program, also at Purdue University.

While Woo acknowledged the role of her own work ethic, she appreciated all who helped her reach her goals.

“When you need help, it’s amazing how many people will help,” Woo said, mentioning her nanny, siblings, the Purdue community and those who welcomed her into their homes for holiday meals.

Woo continues to connect with people from her past. This weekend, two of the nuns who taught her in Hong Kong will visit for the football game. The sisters, ages 85 and 95, continue to challenge her to be a citizen of the world, she said.

Woo’s hour-long presentation ended with open questions from audience members, who inquired about everything from job-searching and child-rearing to her choice of major.

The next speaker in the Telling HERstory Series will be Ann Firth, the associate vice president for student affairs, on Nov. 14 at 12:30 p.m. in the Coleman-Morse Center Lounge.