It’s hard to imagine the sense of anticipation of an 8-year-old Chinese immigrant as she whiled away 37 days aboard a cargo ship making its way from Taiwan to the United States.
A fresh start awaited her and her family – an opportunity to pursue the American dream.
In the spirit of the late great radio commentator Paul Harvey, here’s the rest of the story:
The little girl traveled across ocean waves with her mother and two younger sisters, all of whom were eager for a grand reunion with her father, who had arrived in New York three years earlier. They’d take up residence in a tiny, one-bedroom apartment in Queens, N.Y.
When the little girl got to America, she spoke no English, but a keen intellect soon remedied that. She soaked up information like a sponge.
Her experiences transitioning to the U.S. led to a lifetime devoted to ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to build better lives. She would go on to receive a bachelor’s degree in economics from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and her MBA from the Harvard Business School. She would also receive nearly 40 honorary doctorates from colleges and universities across the country.
The girl’s intellectual prowess didn’t go unnoticed, especially as she grew into womanhood. It showed not just in the classroom or on the job, but in her interactions with people in social settings. Even after the briefest of introductions, she would not forget names, even months or years later, an endearing quality that likely played a part in her becoming the first woman at Harvard to be elected class officer and class marshal.
As an adult, she would become the first Asian American woman to serve in a presidential cabinet when she was appointed secretary of labor. Later, she would also serve as secretary of transportation.
She also shined as president and chief executive officer of the United Way of America, where she restored public trust and confidence in one of America’s premier institutions of private charitable giving, after it had been tarnished by financial mismanagement and abuse. She also served as director of the Peace Corps, where she established the first programs in the Baltic nations and the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union.
Last week, the influential lifestyle website MyDomaine recognized this woman for her impact on U.S. history. She joins a well-known list of women, including Harriett Beacher Stowe, Ameila Earhart, Harriet Tubman, Billie Jean King, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sally Ride, Rosa Parks, Sacagawea, Oprah Winfrey, Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Elaine Chao is altogether deserving of the honor. She’s a Kentucky resident who has achieved the American dream.