Education A Way Out Of The Kitchen

New London -- Ask Ming Dong why Asian-American students like herself consistently rank among the highest academic achievers, as a group outscoring all others on many a state and national test.

Without a pause, she delivers the answer.

“The only way to escape working in a restaurant is by getting an education,” said Dong, 18, who graduated from The Williams School Thursday and will head to Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “Seeing your parents work in a restaurant 12 hours a day, you don't want to do that. Also, there's parent pressure.”

Dong, a New London resident, moved to the United States from Fuzhou, in southeastern China, about 5 1/2 years ago with her mother and younger brother and sister. Her father had already been in this country for several years, preparing the way for them.

In China, Dong had learned to read a little English, but she was unable to speak or understand it when she arrived and started working with a tutor at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School. While she was working on her language skills in her new home, her parents were putting in double shifts at a take-out Chinese restaurant they'd opened.

“My dad would always say that if I don't do well (in school), I could always come work in the restaurant,” she said, shaking her head.

Her middle school tutor, Carol Sanders, remembers Dong as a very determined student who insisted on tackling “Anne of Green Gables” rather than reading elementary school literature until her English improved.

“She picked up everything so fast,” recalled Sanders. “By eighth grade, she was zooming. There was a reverence for education from her parents, and an expectation of high achievement.”

After Dong left the middle school for Williams, she and Sanders kept in touch. Dong was Sanders' first student when she became a tutor, and will always hold a special place in her memory.

“We'll talk on the phone every once in a while to say 'hi,' ” Sanders said. “She never leaves my mind. I always think of her.This was a kid who always had a smile on her face. She's modest and doesn't like to talk about her achievements, but I see her doing whatever she puts her mind to. Her potential is unlimited.”

Teacher Ron Farina, Dong's adviser at Williams, noted that while she excels in math and science, her ability to grasp the nuances of English literature is equally impressive.

“English is probably the most difficult class for her,” Farina said, “but she works harder in it.”

The secret to her success in English, Dong said, was a kind of barter arrangment with her best friend at Williams, Emily Starr.

“She helps me with my grammar,” said Dong, smiling, “and I help her with math. So it works out.”

Dong plans to put her strength in math and science to use in college, where she will major in either engineering or one of the physical sciences, and may ultimately pursue a career in medicine. One of her current endeavors may help her decide if she'd be suited for a major in biology or chemistry.

All seniors at Williams must complete an independent study project. For hers, Dong collected bacteria samples from local hospitals, nursing homes and around the school and tested them for resistence to various antibiotics. A scientist at Jackson Laboratories in Maine helped her with the project through e-mail correspondence.

Modest and somewhat shy, Dong says she's most comfortable in the concrete domains of math and sciences, but likes to dabble in the humanities. She enjoys painting with watercolors and drawing portraits in charcoal, and plans on taking a sculpture class in college. In her free time, she likes to learn about Chinese history and write fiction in Chinese.

For a time, she said, she struggled with identity issues. Should she consider herself Chinese, or American? Now, she's at peace with who she is. Her resolution came after watching a play in New York City directed by a Chinese-American. In it, the main character questions his identity.

“Now I identify myself as a Chinese-American,” she said.
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