USA (West Virginia University) Childhood challenges inspire WVU grad’s lifelong commitment to education

As a young girl coming of age amid China’s Cultural Revolution, future West Virginia University graduate Chaolu Chen’s early education was cut short after fifth grade. At 13, she was sent from her home to work rural rice fields for nearly five years.

Chen responded by dedicating much of her life to education — first as a college student, later as a teacher and education consultant, and now as a donor. Over the past year, she has contributed $115,000 to benefit the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences and the WVU Alumni Association.

Chen, of Tucson, Arizona, earned a master’s degree in history from WVU in 1990. She said attending college in the United States would have been impossible without financial support from WVU to help make her education more affordable.

“I wanted to donate to the University because I feel that when I’m capable, I need to pay it back,” Chen said. “There’s a Chinese saying, ‘When you drink the water, do not forget the person who helped you dig the well,’ so that has always been on my mind.”

Committed to education

Chen’s higher education began after China reinstated college entrance exams in the late 1970s. She studied hard to pass the exam and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in history from South China Teacher’s University and a master’s degree in Southeast Asian studies from Zhongshan or Sun Yat-sen University.

Chen sought to continue her studies in the U.S., following in her sister’s footsteps. Chen was accepted at several universities, but she was drawn to WVU because of the reasonable price.

When she arrived in Morgantown, she discovered that a scholarship had become available for the spring 1987 semester. Later, she was offered a tuition waiver that covered the bulk of her tuition.

“I just could not believe it, such a relief,” Chen said. “Before, I felt, ‘I don’t know. How can I afford to come to school?’ And then suddenly, there was life support so I can begin my studies.”

Yet, she still struggled to cover outstanding costs. She worked part-time jobs on campus, cleaning dishes in a dormitory cafeteria and serving snacks to students at the Mountainlair. She also worked in restaurants in Boston and New York during breaks and even took one semester off to save up money for the following term.

She applied the same work ethic to her studies, which were especially challenging since English was her second language. She said faculty support — particularly from emeriti professors Robert Maxon, Jack Hammersmith, Wesley Bagby and Barbara Howe — was critical to her success.

Following graduation, Chen settled in the San Francisco area and worked as a preschool educator while completing the requirements to teach in public schools. She taught K-3 students for the Oakland Unified School District for 15 years. She then became an education consultant, helping Bay Area schools recruit international students from China for 10 years. She also taught Chinese to local children.

Creating opportunities for others

In recent years, Chen has shifted her focus to real estate investments, which helped her contribute to WVU. Her gifts to the Eberly College support study abroad opportunities for students in the Chinese Studies program and a scholarship for graduate students majoring in history. The scholarship fund is named for Bagby, Chen’s former professor and thesis adviser who died in 2002.

“The Eberly College is profoundly grateful for Chaolu Chen’s most generous gift to support our students,” Eberly College Dean Gregory Dunaway said. “Mrs. Chen’s experience demonstrates the truly transformative impact a WVU and Eberly education can have on students close to home and around the world. This investment will ensure that students yet to come will have an equally transformative experience.”

Her gifts to the WVU Alumni Association aid career development and internship opportunities for students. She said the Alumni Association has been instrumental in helping her reconnect with WVU and identify the best ways to support her alma mater.

“I would like to personally thank Mrs. Chaolu Chen for her very thoughtful contribution,” Kevin Berry, vice president of alumni relations and CEO of the WVU Alumni Association, said. “She is a passionate Mountaineer who cares deeply about enhancing our University community. This gift is a shining example of how our engaged alumni can play a direct role in moving the mission of West Virginia University forward.”

Chen hopes her gifts help other students earn an education and encourage them to give back to WVU.

“I want WVU to know that the scholarship and tuition waiver it provided will not be forgotten,” she said. “Even though I was an international student at that time, I would like to pay back to the school when I can, so that WVU can help other students who have financial needs.”

Chen’s gifts were made through the WVU Foundation, the nonprofit organization that receives and administers private donations on behalf of the University.