A Chinese pioneer’s legacy helps students succeed

Janet and Edward Chen, directors of the Wei Family Foundation Scholarship, make an annual pilgrimage to the College of Science at Oregon State. “We enjoy meeting with the administrators,” said the Chens. “But,” they smiled, “we are really here to talk with the students.”

During their stay, the Chens, who correspond with many students between their visits, make sure that they carve out time to meet individually with every student receiving a Wei Family Foundation scholarship.

“It is very rewarding to get to know the students. We are grateful to be able to meet with them all individually and hear about their passion, dedication and hard work as they progress towards their degrees. There is a lot of rapport and the relationships continue after they graduate; it is like a family,” said the Chens.

Chung Kwai Lui, Physics Ph.D. (’41)

The Wei Family Foundation scholarship supports undergraduate and graduate science students with a 3.5 GPA or higher who are of Chinese ancestry and/or who have lived in China. The scholarship funds about $100,000 per year in grants ranging from $6-8,000 per student. The scholarship honors the legacy of pioneering Oregon State alumna, Chung Kwai Lui, who was not only one of the first two students to enroll in the newly formed physics graduate program in 1936, but also OSU’s first female Ph.D. student in physics in 1941.

Ed Chen recalled how Chung Kwai Lui used to regale people with the amusing story of her arrival from China.  After going through immigration in San Francisco and taking the long train ride to Corvallis, she was met at the station by the Dean—but not the Dean of Science, the Dean of Home Economics! It was assumed that if you were a female graduate student in 1936, home economics was your manifest destiny. Until Chung Kwai Lui came along, that is. She would never forget the look of shock on the Dean’s face when she told her that she was a physics major.

Happily, Dr. Lui soon found a mentor—and fellow pioneer— in the Physics Department: Dr. Weniger, the very first physics professor at OSU, hired in 1908, and the namesake of Weniger Hall, still the home of the Physics Department.

“Dr. Weniger and Dr. Lui were very, very close,” explained Ed. “He was like an angel to her. He took her to conferences in Chicago, in Cincinnati—and in those days there were no flights, so you had to travel by train together—or he arranged for her to go conferences on her own. He helped get her the job at Westinghouse, too.”

Dr. Lui’s unusual, pioneering path does not end there. After teaching physics at Oregon State for several years, she got a job at the Westinghouse Lamp Research Laboratory in New Jersey, where she investigated materials for use as filaments in incandescent lighting, including uranium. During World War II, her expertise in purifying microscopic quantities of uranium was sought out by the Manhattan Project to purify larger, kilogram quantities, and Dr. Lui joined the top secret U.S. effort to develop the atomic bomb.

1949 was a watershed year that transformed Dr. Lui’s life once again. The Communist Party assumed power in China, her student visa expired, and she was on the verge of being deported. However, the U.S. Government, who did not want her knowledge of atomic warfare to fall into Communist hands, passed a bill which was immediately signed by President Harry Truman to change her immigration status retroactively (from student to permanent resident status) so that she could stay in the country indefinitely.

Her momentum and success continued. That same year, Dr. Lui was named “Woman of the Day” by Eleanor Roosevelt for her extraordinary skills as a scientist, and married her husband, Mr. Hsin Hsu Wei, who had emigrated from China after the war and received a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Columbia University. The Wei Family Foundation scholarship grants money specifically to Oregon State and Columbia Universities to honor Dr. Lui and Mr. Wei’s alma maters.

In addition to the bonds they have formed with the students, the Chens’ relationship to Dr. Lui, who passed away in 2008 at the age of 98, adds a unique dimension to their directorship, making it more meaningful and rewarding. Ed Chen became very close friends with Dr. Lui throughout their many years working together at Westinghouse. After Dr. Lui retired and grew more elderly and frail, he assisted her with grocery shopping and other chores, particularly after her husband died in 2000.

“I was like her surrogate son,” Ed said, “and our kids were like her grandkids.”

So what is the spirit behind Dr. Lui’s generous gift?

“When Dr. Lui first came to Oregon State, she had many struggles,” explains Ed. “She had to work at menial jobs at odd hours to earn enough money to stay here. She also had a hard time adjusting to a Western diet. She wanted to help other students like her, particularly students from China, have an easier time adjusting.”

The scholarship money “frees up students’ time for research.” In terms of adjusting to life at Oregon State, one unanticipated effect of the scholarship is the fact that the students have inadvertently formed a tight-knit, supportive community, nurtured by an annual dinner that the Chens hold at a local Chinese restaurant for all of the students.

“The kids are very supportive of each other. Many of them are in study groups together, and they socialize too.”

Although the struggles students today face as they pursue their passion at OSU may differ from Dr. Lui’s in 1936, similarities remain. Financial need, for one. One scholarship student was pursuing an M.A. in statistics when her program was interrupted by pregnancy and a new baby. She applied to the Wei Family Foundation for a scholarship when she was ready to return, and thanks to their support, she finished her degree and obtained a good job at Accenture. She later wrote the Chens, “I could not have done it without your support.”

Like Chung Kwai Lui, the scholarship students benefit from mentoring, which the Chens happily provide. One student who graduated with an engineering degree couldn’t find a job for four months. Panicked, she asked the Chens, “Should I just become an accountant?” No, they advised her, hold firm and keep looking for a job in your field. One month later, she landed a fantastic engineering job at Intel in Portland.

Seeing the students succeed in reaching their goals is what the Chens find most rewarding. “The selection of the students is not just about their G.P.A. We look for passion, for a strong desire to pursue a certain path.”  When the Wei Family Foundation students succeed in reaching their goals, whether as research scientists, entrepreneurs, or employees at Amazon, it’s a dream come true for the Chens and, if she were to see her gift’s legacy today and into the future, for Dr. Lui as well.

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