The curve breaker

Sep 29, 2006

Don't let the nick-name fool you - LuLu (Lu) Chen is an academic powerhouse and she's got big plans to bridge the culture gap between China and the U.S.

They call her the curve breaker. When Lu Chen, of Namping in China's Fujian Province, shows up on the first day of class, her friends know they are facing an academic challenge.

"LuLu always does so well she breaks the curve," said a fellow student, referring to Chen's academic prowess in classes of professors who grade on a curve. There is no malice in their observation, in fact, the international student from China is well-liked - hence the affectionate nick-name "LuLu."

"She is such a sweet girl," said Nate Wilson, a senior from Birch Run. "The first time I met her she already knew my name and that my dad worked at Kettering (Wyn Wilson in Corporate Relations). She was so bubbly and friendly," he said.

Bubbly personality aside, Chen is a steel lotus blossom with big plans for the future. "I want to be able to do something that will give back to China," she said. Currently enrolled as an Applied Mathematics major at Kettering in B-Section, Chen would like to earn advanced degrees in business and law and eventually work in international law to help China and the U.S. develop stronger relations.

What sounds like lofty plans for a 20-year-old are just the next logical step in a life that has already accomplished quite a lot. By the age of 17 Chen held three patents in China, had earned third place in a national Calligraphy competition and had placed seventh in piano in her home Province of Fujian (at age 10).

While still in high school, Chen was the youngest contributing writer published in the Chinese magazine "Commercial Times." Her topics were economic development, and economics and finance.

Also during high school she determined to improve her English skills enough to go to college in an English speaking country (at the time her target was Australia), so she spent three to four hours a day listening to language tapes, frequently while eating meals, in an effort to maximize her time. While still in junior high school, she developed a relationship with U.S. citizens Richard Charlotte Wells, of Flint, Mich., through the internet. Communicating with native English speakers in writing helped improve her language skills even further.

The Wells' became Chen's "American grandparents," and when her acceptance to the University of New South Wales in Australia required her to wait six months to enter college after graduating high school (based on the school year in Australia), the Wells' encouraged her to apply to universities in the U.S.

Chen was accepted at three universities that recognized the entrance exam used in Australia. She chose the University of Dayton in Ohio because of its proximity to her "American grandparents" and spent her freshman year there soaking up U.S. culture while majoring in Mathematics and Economics.

During the Christmas holidays Chen spent time with her American grandparents, and Grandpa Wells encouraged her to consider transferring to Kettering University. They toured campus together and Chen met with Bob Nichols, vice president of Enrollment Management.

She liked what she saw, especially the cooperative education component at Kettering that has students working in their field of study, rotating three-month academic terms with three-month work terms year round. Half of enrolled students are on campus while the other half are at work. This split is called A-Section and B-Section.

"I was lucky I only lost two classes in the transfer process," said Chen, "so I came in as a sophomore." She lost no time jumping into campus life at Kettering. "Kettering is a great school," she said, "I love it here."

Elected sophomore representative for B-Section Kettering Student Government (KSG), Chen is also a member of the Society of Women Engineers, on the Academic Council of KSG, a member of Alpha Gamma Delta Sorority, vice president of the Scholarship committee for Panhellenic Council and is working with a group of students to start an on-campus publication named to provide information for students about research opportunities and graduate school opportunities at Kettering.

On top of all that there is the book. Her first year as an exchange student (at the University of Dayton) prompted Chen to write a book about her experiences to encourage other Chinese students to apply to U.S. universities, and to dispel misconceptions parents and students in China have about U.S. culture.

"The book is an autobiographical collection of essays and journal entries about what makes me, what it took to get where I am and my ideas on education," Chen said. Her father, a professor of Mechanical Engineering in China, co-authored the book with her, including his thoughts on parenting.

"My parents have been supportive of me," said Chen. "I come from a very conservative part of China. When I said I wanted to attend university in the U.S. my teachers in high school tried to discourage me and many friends made fun of me," she said. "But my family was supportive."

Her parents' support may have been seen as unusual in a culture that considered it odd that Chen wanted to go so far away for college, especially when there were no extended family members living in the U.S. to watch over her.

Chen's book sold more than 10,000 copies in the first three weeks, with plans for a second print run in the works. While Chen continues to attend classes in the U.S., her father is lecturing about the book and Chen has been interviewed by China's largest newspaper and has done long-distance television interviews by phone.

"There is so much interest from students in China," she said of the book's reception. "Since I wrote about Kettering many students (in China) are asking me about it. I feel great that I can help promote Kettering to the world," she added.

Although she has almost daily contact with her parents via email and phone calls, Chen, an only child, won't see her parents for at least another three years. She has already been away from home for two years. After earning her bachelors degree she stills plans on returning to the U.S. for an advanced degree ("probably law" she said).

Being close to her American grandparents during academic terms helps keep homesickness at bay - that and keeping busy. With Infinity Magazine scheduled to launch in the upcoming academic term (Oct. 2 to Dec. 15), a full load of classes, all her campus involvement and the book going into its second edition, Chen is right on schedule to conquer the world before dinner time.

Written by Dawn Hibbard