for Mother’s Day: A Professor’s Tribute to His Mother’s Commitment to Education

Mothers Who Understand the Importance of Education, Kam Wing Chan, Department of Geography

Many mothers understand the importance of education.  Some pushy ones, like the “tiger mom” who has ignited a firestorm of debate about parenting, have given mom a bad name.  Many others, gentler and far less known, in my opinion, are equally powerful and decidedly smarter, and they deserve recognition.

I grew up in Hong Kong in a humble family. My mother, as with many Chinese women of her age in that era, never went to school. Despite that, she had a strong belief in education and supported to the utmost her children’s education all along – not just finishing high school, but also going to college, and perhaps even beyond. Getting us a good education was prioritized over many other things, like having a TV, which seemed to be a necessity in the 1970s (we finally got our TV after I finished college). Even though she did not know exactly what a Ph.D was, she supported me unwaveringly to get one in a country thousands of miles away from her. Had it not for her wholehearted backing in that effort, my life story – beginning with being the first one in the family to go to college – would have been written very differently.

Of course, this belief in the long-term benefit of education is also found in many other moms.  Nearly ten years ago, I got stranded in Moscow for a few days because of 9/11 (I was supposed to fly back to Seattle on September 12, but that flight never took off).  As it turned out, the extra days gave me some interesting opportunities to learn about Russia, its people — and more.  Over dinner with my Russian tour guide, a tall, gorgeous young woman studying history at Moscow State University, I asked if she had ever considered dropping college to become a full-time model instead, an “easy,” well-paid, and, above all, glamorous career for an attractive woman like her. She said no — she would never pass up college education — by recounting what her mom, a Russian Jew who lived through the Soviet era, had told her: the government can always take everything from you, but it cannot take away your education.

I know later that she, like me, went on to complete a graduate degree.

And as an old Chinese proverb puts it: it takes ten years to grow a tree, but a hundred years to develop a talent.

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