Former NECO President Elizabeth Chen reflects on Chinatown and career success
Elizabeth Chen, a Former President of the New England College of Optometry (NECO), spoke about her roots in Chinatown and the challenges and rewards she has found on her path to success in a Sampan interview.
In June, a classroom in one of NECO’s historic buildings on Beacon Street in Back Bay was named in honor of Chen by the trustees of the college. Chen is both the first woman and the first Asian American to have served as the head of an optometry school in the United States. The committee thanked her for leading the institution “always with the highest of ethical standards; for her gifts as a major donor; and for her service as a fellow Trustee,” according to NECO’s current president Clifford Scott in a public message. Scott also noted that under Ms. Chen’s leadership, NECO was awarded $3 million in the school’s first industry-sponsored research program, and participation in the annual fund nearly doubled.
Chen does not, however, forget her experiences as a new immigrant to the United States, emigrating with her parents and siblings at age seven and living in Castle Square as the youngest of five children. She attended the old Quincy School on Tyler Street several decades ago. She remembers Chinatown as an “incredibly supportive community” and said, “It was like living in a village. You know the families in Chinatown. People look out for each other. You walk around and people say: ‘I saw your father and mother the other day.’ You walk to school with neighbors. Other kids’ parents are teachers and nurses in the school so it had this supportive feel to it.”
Chen’s ambition emerged at a young age when she even checked off that she would like to attend the boys’ Boston Latin school right before it became co-educational because she felt it was “the best available.”
She recalled her middle school experience during the bussing era in Boston and her desire to attend a great high school. “I was bussed to the North End. We had parents throwing rocks at the school. My first year was in middle school at the Michelangelo School in the North End. It was a huge school. I then took the test for the Boston Latin School; I was in one of the first co-ed classes. At the time the boys’ Latin school was viewed to have a higher academic standard than the girls’ so I remember checking off the box. My first choice was the boys’ Latin School. It was the best available.”
Chen emphasized that in life you should always “do your absolute best wherever you are.”
“Whatever job you do, do [it] thoroughly and completely and to the best of your abilities. Things will take care of themselves. If your primary job is to take care of children, do it to the best of your ability. If it’s housekeeping, do your best. There are many people who work in restaurants. I think restaurants function very well in Chinatown; this is really everyone doing their best.”
Chen hopes that Chinatown will continue to be the supportive environment it was for her; “a place where you can get the resources you need as a new immigrant and make a better life for yourself as new immigrants.”
She attributes her success to her family and noted that there was never a question that her family came to United States for better opportunities. As the youngest child, she spent the most time in the educational system and felt that her family “always supported her success.”
“My parents and my sister would reorient their lives to support my educational success whether it was to buy me a typewriter or to send me to tutoring classes, or to send me to a summer in Germany when I was a junior in high school. They always found ways to do that by giving something up. I remember my older sisters tutoring me, and my older sister Donna driving me to school,” said Chen.
Chen, who earned degrees from both Yale and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, described her experiences as an Asian American woman in the workforce among the first generation of women graduating from business schools who were comparably educated to men and how this impacted her both positively and negatively.
“It’s been challenging at times. But it’s also been positive at other times. I remember going to an investor meeting when I was in biotech and you raise money and try to differentiate yourself and try to make yourself noticed by people who have money like venture capitalists. If you’re the only Asian woman in the room, it’s pretty easy for people to remember you as the only Asian woman in the room in a sea of white males. If you’re the only female in the room and you’re Asian people remember you.”
She added that culture sometimes made things challenging.
“I grew up in a Chinese way in a Chinese family. That is different from people who grow up in an American family with different values, and so when you’re a minority you’re trying to figure out how the two Venn diagrams fit. I try to find parts of me that would fit into the majority culture and develop links. I try to find where that is. The burden is on the minority to find the way into culture.”
Chen said that she sometimes wasn’t sure why she did well in some jobs and not in others and said that it is “the culture of being Chinese and the way we conduct ourselves; we don’t tend to self-promote and that can get in the way.”
Although managing a demanding career along with a family and child is a challenge according to Chen, she said that she “loved being in bio-tech” and “loves the energy that’s in biotech”, emphasizing “the rewarding feeling” she has knowing that she is “impacting 85,000 patients per year” and the feeling at graduation when you “stand before the hundreds of students and you think: wow, we’re graduating them and they’re doctors.”
Chen has also been the CEO of two biotechnology companies in New England and serves on the Board of the Boston Plan for Excellence and on the Statutory Advisory Board of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind. She has been on a sabbatical since September of 2009 to research the unintended bias that may result in a patient provider relationship in the context of racial concordance; in other words, what can happen when a patient and a provider are of the same or different races. Chen will return to NECO as an adjunct professor this month.
Natalie Ornell is a Sampan correspondent.
This post is also available in: Chinese