November 2008 Issue • Volume 36 • Issue 8

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Chow Builds a Foundation for Education in China

by Carla B. Howery, Former ASA Deputy Executive Officer

For years, sociologists have been the leaders of foundations, key persons on grant review panels dispersing funds to support sociological projects, or served in various staff capacities. Now Esther Ngan-ling Chow, American University, saw a need for financial security in order to achieve goals important to her and therefore launched her own small foundation.

Chow grew up in China and attended a True Light school, which was a special school that identified talented girls who were then given full educational opportunities. Because she was able to receive a quality high school education in Hong Kong, and did well as a student, Chow was able to dream of achieving a graduate degree. She came to the United States in 1966 and completed her PhD in sociology at UCLA. She has been a member of the faculty at American University in Washington, DC, ever since.


Esther Chow, American University,
awards scholarships from the True Light
Foundation to students in rural China.

In 1955, Chow was one of the first scholarship recipients supported by the original True Light Foundation in New York City. According to Chow, "the six-year scholarship award rescued me from poverty when I desperately needed it to continue my education. It consisted of U.S. $100 per academic year, which was munificently donated by three American women and one Chinese American woman, all of whom resided in New Jersey. Without these generous scholarships, I would not have been able to graduate from high school, let alone go to college and graduate school for advanced studies…and have a professional career like what I have now."

With six other visionary graduates of the True Light Schools in China and Hong Kong, Chow established the True Light Foundation, Inc., a non-profit membership organization based out of her home. Incorporated in 2004, she has served as the President of this organization since its inception. Having a foundation in place is an effective mechanism to solicit and distribute funds, start new initiatives—some from Chow’s Fulbright research in China—and have an ongoing structure to support women’s education.

As a firm believer in "making a difference" by taking social action, Chow points out, "The mission of the Foundation resonates with the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, established in 2000, to strengthen education as a basic dimension of human rights and to reduce the disparity between boys’ and girls’ education so rampant in the developing world. China is a country in need of such educational changes."

The Foundation has launched True Light Project Hope, which raises funds to provide scholarships for needy boys and girls in poverty-stricken areas of rural western China. Her Foundation has been able to tap generous donors in the United States to fund one program of 295 scholarships, to help support girls seeking to continue a three-year high school education past the nine years of universal education offered by the Chinese government. The cost of a girl’s education is quite modest, $100 a year to subsidize school expenses that parents must pay for their daughters.

The Foundation recently enacted a new initiative that supported an additional 60 scholarships in the past three years for boys and girls at all school levels in the Sichuan province who have a disabled parent. In the global economy, parents often do out-migration jobs and subsequently return to their villages due to job-related injuries. In her field research, Chow interviewed several of these disabled migrant workers in a remote rural region. "Uninformed of workers’ rights, many injured workers either receive little or no workers’ compensation and their families struggle for survival with limited assistance from local governments," says Chow. Her action research project documented the vulnerability and struggle of these families and assessed the kind of help they need, including the education of children, to provide for the family.

The Foundation’s latest plan is to build schools in remote rural China where dropout rates for girls are higher than for boys. Poor school environment with limited resources and facilities often discourage poverty-stricken parents from keeping their children in schools. Son-preference further seriously shortchanges daughters in education. The True Light Foundation has concentrated its efforts in the most impoverished areas with the highest rates of illiteracy among women in China.

In spite of the fast pace of change in China, Chow reminds us that universal education extends only through 9th grade. Girls are unlikely to have educational opportunities to even that level, much less beyond. The empowerment of girls through education is key to social change and to eliminating gender inequality and social injustice, which is what the Foundation’s intentions are. In every True Light Foundation brochure, the commitment to "education as the key to break the cycle of poverty" stands out. The True Light Foundation, growing in endowment, participation, and its gifts, provides a structure to assure continued support of Chinese women’s education. Chinese-American women like Esther Chow are working valiantly and giving generously to educate girls who would have otherwise been left behind. small_green


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