By Regina Yan, '82
English literature brought me to Spokane. My Hong Kong Baptist College English Professor Eleanor Taylor told me that she and her good friend Patricia MacDonald, of Whitworth College, had started a student exchange program between the two schools. "You should consider it," she said. I thought about it and said, "Why not?"
After graduation, I exchanged annual Christmas letters with my Whitworth English professor, Lewis Archer. A few years ago, I sent him my long-overdue gratitude, after reflecting on two decades of my career working with countries in the former Soviet Union. I don't speak Russian and neither have I studied the history or politics of these countries to prepare me for the work I do. I told Lew that the only academic qualification I could point to was my exposure to the great Russian novels – Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov – that I read in his class.
Success in international-development work generally requires long-term investment and persistent hard work. This is especially true if one is promoting active citizenry or building strong civic institutions. In the early years I dreaded going through customs. That's usually where they shake you down for bribes. In those days, you were required to fill out customs forms in great detail, including the exact amount of money you were carrying. You had to pull out all of your money, count it in public, and then record the precise amount.
Once, after turning in my forms, I was pulled aside to verify the cash I carried. The customs officer searched through my bags, and it turned out I had $3 more than I'd reported. I'd tucked some change in the pocket of my handbag and had forgotten about it. I immediately asked to correct my form. "No!" the stern customs lady said. "Fine!" I asked how much the fine would be. "Fifty dollars," she said. It was obvious that the officers were looking for a bribe. Using my Whitworth-encouraged logic and critical-thinking skills, I insisted they show me the policy that said the fine for a $3 error would be $50. After 15 minutes of back-and-forth, the customs officer realized she was wasting her time. She waved me by. Once more, my education had eased my passage.
Sometimes, what we see on the surface can be deceptive. Several years ago, after visiting program sites in the countryside in western China, I was in a car returning to the city. I saw a dozen youngsters in their school uniforms walking along the highway, carrying backpacks and cardboard boxes. I was told they were from the villages and were taking the two- to three-hour walk back to their boarding school after a weekend with their families. The locals who were with me asked me to guess what the children were carrying in their backpacks and cardboard boxes. "Books and homework?" I asked. "No," they said. "They're carrying bread, their food for the week, back to school." At school, the children got one small bowl of noodles a day. All meals were eaten standing up in the schoolyard; there was no cafeteria. And small children slept two or three in a bed. Who would have thought that a question about what's in the backpack would lead me to learn so much about the lives of these youngsters? My curiosity and interest in other cultures, honed at Whitworth, led me to find out more about the people around me in this place about which my knowledge was limited.
I've circled back to Spokane a few times over the years, mainly to visit my mentors, life coaches and good friends Professor Emeritus of Psychology Patricia MacDonald and Carolyn Gowdy. This year I am speaking at the Great Decisions lecture. What a remarkable journey it has been that has taken me from Hong Kong through Whitworth to Washington – and then on to so many interesting places in the world.
Yan was recently named COO of The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, in Washington, D.C.