Finding a Family

When the Asian Alumni Network awarded its first-ever scholarship to Elie Wu, they boosted a future leader who’s overcome some serious financial and family challenges.

Last winter, during UT’s holiday break, Elie Wu flew to Guiyang, China, to visit her family. Saving money for the plane ticket had taken years; now she got to meet her infant cousin for the first time. His parents were grateful for her help, and Wu, now 19, quickly became expert at rocking the baby to sleep.

Sometimes she’d fall asleep next to him, and in the morning she loved staring at his peaceful face. She always had the same thought: “I have to give this kid a chance,” she recalls. “I want him to have the opportunities I’ve had. On that trip, I realized that college isn’t about me—it’s also about giving back to my family.”

Wu, now a sophomore studying rhetoric and writing through the Liberal Arts Honors program, knows the importance of family better than most. Her parents brought her from China to Houston when she was a toddler, and later divorced. Wu credits her mother with working tirelessly to support her. “My mom worked as a waitress, a front desk lady, a technician, a cleaning lady, and plenty more,” she says. “I like to think I inherited her work ethic.”

When Wu was 10, they lived for a few months in a motel, with her mother cleaning rooms in exchange for a safe place to sleep. “It was a precarious time,” Wu remembers. “I was scared, but she did her best to shelter me. She told me how important it was to study and do my best.”

And she did, rising to the top of her class at Katy’s Cinco Ranch High School. Then Wu’s mother was laid off from her job. “I thought college wasn’t going to be possible,” says Wu matter-of-factly. With the help of guidance counselors, she cobbled together enough scholarship funds to make it happen.

While Wu was visiting family in China, the fledgling Asian Alumni Network was gearing up to award its first scholarship. The network, founded in 2008 by Jennifer Wang, BS ’09, MEd ’12, and several friends, sought to unite a diverse community. “When I was an undergraduate, there were about 40 Asian student organizations, from the Vietnamese Students Association to the Indian Students Association,” Wang says, “but there was no one unified group for everybody. That’s why we got started.”

The network has grown rapidly, says steering committee member Amin Habibnia, BA ’11, Life Member. “There is definitely a need,” he says. “And we welcome everyone.”

One flagship event—the first-annual Winter Reunion—raised $1,500 for the first scholarship, with extra support from Mitchel Wong, BS ’60. Wong, an ophthalmologist with a Texas twang and a penchant for cowboy boots, is proud to be the first Chinese-American baby born in Austin. Asked why he supports the scholarship, he says simply, “I believe good things come to those who work hard and help others.”

Wu, who is planning a career in immigration law, says she was surprised to learn she’d won the scholarship, which she found on the Texas Exes website. “It’s a big morale boost to know there are people out there counting on me, even though they don’t know me,” she says. “It’s changed my definition of what a family means.”

From top: the Wong family (Mitchel is second from left) in 1943. Credit: Austin History Center.

 

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