HAPPY BIRTHDAY WANG CENTER
By: Amy Cockerham
In the spring of 2001, Peter Wang ’60 and his wife, Grace, were already thinking about the deep rifts developing in the world and what they could do to help.
They could not have known that a few months later, the actions of ruthless terrorists would bring these global tensions into sharp relief for the rest of the world, too. The couple had been in talks with PLU development officers, administrators and faculty for months when the morning of September 11 dawned.
Within days, it became clear to Peter and Grace what they would do.
President Loren Anderson, then-Associate Provost Bill Teska and Ed Larson, a longtime development officer, were already planning to visit the Wangs at their Pebble Beach, Calif., home on Sept. 14, 2001. 9/11 forced them to delay the trip for several days as flights were cancelled, then schedules scrambled in the aftermath of the attack.
“We finally got down there 10 days later,” Anderson recalled. “We sat down and about five minutes later Peter said, ‘You told me it would take $4 million to endow a center for international programs, is that right?’ And I said, ‘Yes, that’s right.’ And he said, ‘Well, we’ve decided to go ahead and do that.’”
In early 2002, the formal announcement of the center was made, and it was open for business by the start of the 2002-03 academic year.
Five years later, the Wangs returned to campus to celebrate the first major anniversary of the center, born of tragedy but now serving as a major force for positive change on campus and around the world.
The Wangs received the annual Peace Builder Award during a luncheon held as part of “World Conversations: Voices from Around the Globe,” an event sponsored by the Wang Center in February. The event featured the scholarship of students and faculty from J-Term and semester-abroad programs as well as special speakers, including former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale and author, journalist and photographer Ann Jones.
“No one is more deserving of recognition for their efforts to foster global peace than the Wangs,” Anderson said. “In their own way, they have made a critical impact in the area of global understanding. Showing students the world contributes to a new generation of leaders with perhaps a bit more understanding of and appreciation for cultural differences.”
Peter graduated from PLU with degrees in math and physics, and went on to earn his doctorate in probability theory from Wayne State University. He ended up teaching mathematics and national security affairs at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, Calif., and devoted a great deal of time to research for national security. His wife, Grace, holds a doctorate in chemistry.
“I feel global understanding is even more important today than five years ago,” Peter said.
He describes the founding of the Wang Center as coming “just in the nick of time,” as global circumstances and world history flexed on 9/11.
“Our most significant accomplishment as a group, as PLU and the Wang Center, was that we somehow expressed ourselves very well to the rest of the world: ‘We are concerned. We want to find answers,’” he said.
But PLU’s international education program dates to long before the founding of the Wang Center. PLU students were traveling to China – now the fastest-growing destination for U.S. students studying abroad – since the 1970s. So one might wonder why it is important to have a center – a physical location – dedicated to international study.
“I think having a center gives us identity,” Anderson said. “It gives coherence. And in this case, it brings resources to our effort to build a truly distinctive global education program.”
The center has proven to be a catalyst for both expanding and improving PLU’s international programs. Today, the Wang Center for International Programs is manned by an executive director and a staff of five, who in the last two years have placed students on all seven continents at the same time.
And while the seven-continents benchmark is an easy indicator of the breadth of Wang Center programming, it does not begin to do justice to the sheer number of students touched by the center. Consider this: the national rate of overseas study is 3 percent annually; PLU’s rate is 36 percent, and the near-term goal is to reach 50 percent by 2010. Many of them are venturing far beyond the traditional countries for American students, too – away from Western Europe and English-speaking nations to Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia.
“A lot of parents look at our courses and say ‘This doesn’t look like what study away is. Where are France and Germany?’” said Neal Sobania, executive director of the Wang Center. “But we’re where two-thirds of the world live, in rural, developing nations.
“Once students study in a place like Africa or Latin America, they will never read about something happening in a developing country in the same way again.”
The Wang Center also serves a crucial role in faculty development, providing funds for the development of J-Term and semester-abroad programs, research trips and course development.
“What it really offers is support services for faculty and academic programming,” said Teska, the former associate provost and now a professor of biology. “It provides a nexus of leadership, so that as we move forward into the future, we move within a framework of ideas.”
The center also works to bring global perspectives to PLU in Parkland, which Sobania believes is just as important as coordinating international study for students.
“I’m excited by the fact that PLU has a goal of 50 percent of students studying abroad by 2010, but we also have a responsibility to bring the world to the 50 percent who won’t go,” Sobania said.
That mission is fulfilled primarily through a series of public symposia on issues of global concern, including “China: Bridges for a New Century” in April 2003 and “Pathways to Peace: Norway’s Approach to Democracy and Development” in January 2005. February’s “World Conversations” event marked 2007, and in late February 2008, the Wang Center will host a large-scale conference on issues of global health. Details will be forthcoming in future issues of Scene.
Teska said the example Peter Wang has set among alumni is a testament to the best of what a solid undergraduate education can mean for individuals.
“It illustrates how these connections we make with our students are so important,” he said.
Peter ’60 and Grace Wang were the driving force behind the founding of the Wang Center for International Programs.