Class of 2002: Gifted grad seeks happiness first
Editor's note: Those who graduated high school in 2002 were the first to enter the post-9/11 world. Their adult lives have been shaped by two wars, a shortage of jobs and the Great Recession. The Day asked nine of the seniors profiled in 2002 about how their lives now reflect their dreams and ambitions then.
Ten years ago, anyone who knew Ming Dong would have guessed she'd accomplish whatever she set her mind to. But staying predictably true to her high school self doesn't make the 28-year-old's last decade any less impressive.
After graduating from The Williams School in New London in 2002, Dong double-majored in mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and landed a job at Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, N.J., right out of college. Now a staff engineer on her third promotion there, Dong is also working on a master's degree in business at New York University.
"I'm constantly checking whether I'm happy, and what I'm doing now is good for me at this stage in my life, but I'm still trying to find my sweet spot," said Dong, who lives in Jersey City with her husband of three years, Stanley Sun, an investment banker in Manhattan whose family also immigrated from China.
"We had a Chinese-style wedding in New York City, then we had two receptions in China," Dong said. She became a U.S. citizen during her senior year in college.
In high school, Dong impressed her teachers with her grasp of English, a language she mastered after her family immigrated from China when she was 12. She still keeps in touch with the tutor, Carol Sanders, who first worked with her at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School.
"We talk about once a year," Dong said.
In school, Dong applied herself with equal diligence to math and science, and also found time to dabble in painting and writing fiction in Chinese. She was motivated to work hard, she said then, by a desire to make sure she would acquire the skills to escape the 12-hour work days her parents regularly put in at the Chinese restaurants they owned in southeastern Connecticut and in Michigan.
Her parents have since retired and now divide their time between a home in China and one in New Jersey about an hour from Dong, the oldest of their three children.
"They are bored," Dong said. "They keep bothering me to have kids so they can help out."
In a year or two, she might be ready for motherhood, she said.
At Johnson & Johnson, Dong started out working on technical operations at manufacturing sites, then moved into engineering design of the company's oral care products such as toothbrushes and dental floss. Now she's working with a marketing, research and development team, scoping out new markets and figuring which new products are feasible. In this job, she said, she draws on both her engineering skills and what she's learning in her MBA program. She often travels for work to Asia, Europe and throughout the United States.
Like many in her generation, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks continue to influence her outlook on life, reminding her to be guided in her decisions by what's really important.
"It did affect me, because I determined that I needed to make sure I was doing something I like, because you never know what's going to happen," she said. "I'm not really motivated by money."
The weak economy has played a role in her decisions about her professional life, too, she said, keeping her at the same company when she might have moved on. At the same time, she accepts that she can't take her job for granted.
"We've had a lot of layoffs," she said. "We just had some last month."
But, she said, she's confident in her skills and not worried about getting laid off.
"I'm too cheap for them to get rid of me," she said.
Dong still visits southeastern Connecticut, usually coming in the summer to stay with her uncle in Mystic and spend time in Newport.
Looking back, she said she gravitated naturally toward her strengths in math and science, but she wishes she'd spent more time cultivating her artistic side.
"I always focused on my strengths, but now I'm rounding myself out with the MBA," she said.
Her advice to today's high school seniors: "Don't be afraid to explore, and work on what you're not good at."
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