Today Jianping Wang is the president of Mercer County Community College, a position in life that was almost unimaginable to her as a young child. Growing up, Wang’s horizons extended no farther than the textile factory where her mother worked. But thanks to a great deal of hard work and some adults who helped her on the path to an education, Wang was able to make the improbable journey. Today she is devoted to giving American students that same chance.

Wang, a veteran administrator who previously served as vice president of academic affairs at Ocean County College, was selected in June to succeed Patricia Donahue, who retired after eight years as president of the 12,000-student community college.

Wang, who grew up in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, a port city 130 miles south of Shanghai, describes her upbringing as a humble and troubled one. Her mother, a factory worker, had never gone to school, and her father was a clerk for the local government with a middle school education. From the beginning, Wang faced a hard road because of being a girl. “My grandmother on my father’s side was disappointed when I was born because I was a girl,” she says. She says her grandmother was so hostile to the idea of female grandchildren, that when Wang’s mother had another girl younger than Wang, the grandmother had the baby taken away for adoption while she was still in the hospital.

“My mother had a C-section and when she woke up, my sister was taken away,” Wang says. “My father and my grandmother had decided it was OK for the baby to be taken away. When my mother woke up, she discovered she didn’t have a baby.” Wang’s mother never spoke to her mother-in-law again, and the incident left Wang with a fear that she too would be given up.

Wang explains that the resentment she faced has its roots in traditional Chinese culture, where it is customary for girls to join their husband’s family when they get married and thereafter contribute little to their birth families. Because of this dynamic, “investing” in the education of a girl would not pay off for the parents in the long run because her income and work would go to her new family. From a purely mercenary perspective, it is better to use resources on a son who will stay with the family and is expected to support parents in their old age.

Nevertheless, Wang, driven by a desire to be accepted and a fear of being given away, worked extra hard in school in order to please her family. When her brother was born when Wang was eight, Wang’s parents followed the traditional Chinese pattern and lavished resources upon him instead of his sister.

The decade-long Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s turned life upside down for Wang’s family as it did for everyone in China. The movement, an attempt by Chairman Mao to purge capitalism from the country and replace traditional values with Communist ones, resulted in the dismantling of the education system, imprisonment of people deemed “bourgeois,” the confiscation of property, destruction of cultural and historical relics, mass propaganda, purges, and other forms of persecution.

Wang’s father was sent to a “re-education camp,” a farm where people were forced to work and subjected to political indoctrination. The imprisonment, which lasted several years, put even more of a strain on the family’s beleaguered finances. “I would walk to the farm to visit him,” Wang recalls. “Buses would pass us, and I would complain to my mother and ask why we couldn’t take the bus. She would reply that we were almost there,”

Wang had just entered first grade in 1966 when the revolution began. Soon her school lessons were replaced with propaganda and indoctrination. Class consisted of nothing more than reading slogans from Mao’s Little Red Books.

But Wang’s desire to learn was not quenched. “I was always a Curious George,” she says. “I was always asking a lot of questions.” Wang befriended older students and adults who had more knowledge of the world and who were willing to teach her the things she couldn’t learn in class. “They would take me to different places, like the zoo, the park, or the museum,” she says. “Also, I was always the teachers’ favorite because I was so diligent and so curious. They really favored me all around.”

Wang’s life almost took a very different turn when she was in the fifth grade. By that time, she had developed a talent for singing Chinese opera, and was performing at school. She wanted to audition for an opera troupe, which would have meant she would be sent to a special opera school. In order to do that, she had to get permission from her parents. But one afternoon, her parents received a visit from her teacher. Normally, a teacher’s visit meant the child was in serious trouble. But this visit was different.

“The teacher told my parents they should not send me to the opera, because he believed I would become a professor one day. Back then, the word professor didn’t mean anything to my parents. But they were so undereducated that they revered the teachers. Whatever the teacher said was what they did.” Wang says she kicked, screamed, and cried about not being able to join the opera. In the end, the teacher was exactly right.

Still, at the time, becoming a professor was scarcely imaginable. College was for boys, and politically connected boys at that. When Wang reached middle school, the country was still in the throes of the revolution. One day her father bought Wang a transistor radio as a present. “I was bored out of my mind reading Mao’s Red Books all day. I got tired of listening to the radio, with Mao’s songs and everything,” she says.

One day Wang was playing with the radio, tuning in channels at random, and she heard something she had never heard before. “It was an English lesson,” she said. The radio station was the Voice of America, and although the Communists were jamming the U.S. government-sponsored station, some transmissions were getting through to the town where Wang lived.

Wang told one of her teachers what she had heard on the radio. The teacher took her aside and urged her not to say anything to anyone else — learning English was not on the Maoist agenda. The teacher showed her a book of the things she had been listening too, and explained that it was an English textbook.

“What is English?” Wang asked. “It’s a language that people speak in America,” the teacher replied.”

“What’s America?”

“It’s a place far away, over the ocean.”

“How do you get there?”

“To get there, you have to fly.”

“I can’t fly. I’m not a bird.”

“You can get there on a plane.”

To Wang, getting on a plane was just as ridiculous as becoming a bird — she had never even been on a train, let alone a plane. Still, she was fascinated by English. It was something she could learn that wasn’t a revolutionary slogan.

The teacher offered to sell Wang the book for the equivalent of about 10 cents. It was way out of her family’s price range, even if they were willing to spend money on an illicit textbook — which they weren’t. It was an entire day’s worth of her mother’s wages. Wang proposed to copy the book instead. But on what? Her parents would never buy her a notebook. Wang realized there was one source of paper she could use.

“Everyone smoked,” she says. “Cigarettes came in cartons that had this glossy white paper on the inside. I asked everyone to give me their empty cigarette cartons, and I stitched them together.”

Wang taught herself English using her textbook copied onto stitched together cigarette packs.

When Wang was in high school — 10 years after the cultural revolution began — leader Deng Xiaoping introduced reforms that brought normal subjects back to the education system. He also re-established the national entrance exam system, which allowed anyone, regardless of background to sit for college admissions exams and be admitted if they did well enough.

By that time, Wang was working in a factory, and had little hope of ever going to college. However, once again, a mentor stepped in to encourage Wang’s education. Her boss at the factory, recognizing her talent, allowed her to work the night shift and spend her hours studying under the factory’s electric lights.

When it came time for the exam, she still had one obstacle to overcome — to sit for the exam, she needed her parents’ permission. After a screaming fight, Wang got permission to take the test once. She promised that if she failed, she wouldn’t take it again.

When the test rolled around, Wang was so nervous she forgot to write her name on the English part of the test. Nevertheless, her scores on other subjects were strong enough to land her an interview with a broadcasting school far from home. “My father gave me his watch to use on the trip,” she recalls. To prepare for the journey, Wang went to a public bath to wash up, leaving the watch on a shelf. When she looked up, it was gone. Someone had stolen it. The incident unnerved Wang so much that she forgot everything she had prepared for the interview and did terribly, and was rejected from the school.

Her parents hadn’t given her permission to take the test again next year. Nevertheless, she continued studying at the factory. When the test came around again, her boss helped her forge her parents’ signature, and she went anyway, this time earning the right to study English at Hangzhou University, far from her hometown.

She began her English studies ranked at the bottom of the class of 183. Once again, Wang was determined to succeed despite the odds. She got up at 5 a.m. so she could listen to the school’s only and highly coveted tape recorder. The dorm lights turned off at 11 p.m., so she went to the gym to study late into the night under its lights. One night, security guards kicked her out of the gym, suspecting her of stealing a small mirror she had been using to see the shape of her mouth when forming English words. From then on, she studied under street lights.

By the time she graduated with her English degree, she was at the top of her class.

Wang’s career next took her to Beijing University, China’s most prestigious school, where she began her graduate studies. She earned her master of arts at the school, graduating in 1986, and became its youngest English professor. She shared a three-bedroom apartment with her husband, and when bill collectors or other officials dropped by, they would ask to see her father, the professor. “All the other professors were in their 60s, 70s, or 80s,” she says.

It wasn’t long before the Beijing campus became involved in another political movement. “Beijing University students have a history of being very politically astute,” Wang says. In the late 1980s, they began to take up the cause of democracy, calling for more freedom of speech and freedom of the press from the government. Students and faculty members began discussing democracy via papers pinned on bulletin boards. The papers multiplied until they were all over the university campus, on trees, on boards, and spilling out into the city.

“I was very deeply involved in that movement,” Wang says. She once caused a stir by wearing a form-fitting traditional Chinese dress with a slit on the side, as a protest against oppressive leadership. The dress was considered taboo because the Communist fashion was for women to dress in shabby clothing or in shapeless, pocketed “Mao suit” tunics.

Some of Wang’s friends could smell a government crackdown coming, and advised her to get out of the country while she could. Since her husband, a fellow professor, was already in the United States, Wang was able to leave the country relatively easily. Wang left in January, 1989, and the Tiananmen Square Massacre took place on June 3 and 4. “Many of my colleagues, to this day, are missing,” Wang says. “It is very fortunate that I am alive, and am able to continue their cause of fighting for more freedom. I am an adamant champion for people to have their own ideas.”

Wang moved to the United States and lived there with her husband and young son, but the conflicts of China followed her. “We had major ideological differences,” she says. “He didn’t believe women needed to be educated.” Wang and her husband applied to Harvard graduate school. She was accepted, he was not. As Wang relates the story, her husband wanted her to stay home and take care of her son, especially with a daughter on the way, and he brought his mother over from the mainland to help out with childcare, and also to put more pressure on his education-minded wife. “My goal in life is not just to have a husband, a boy and a girl,” she says. “I want to see the rest of the world. He told me, ‘If you go to Harvard, we get divorced. So, we got divorced.’”

The divorce was a long and bitter battle, and Wang’s husband fled the country with her son. “He kidnaped my son,” she says, adding that her ex-husband told her young son that she had abandoned him and was dead. “It left a deep scar in my heart. Every student I got, I told them that I’ve got a lot of love to give, and my son is not with me, so my love is yours now. I just poured my heart into the students and it helped me get over my depression.”

Wang was eventually reunited with her son in 2007. He graduated from Rutgers this summer.

After graduating from Harvard with a master’s in education, Wang got involved in community colleges. “When I first bumped into them, the more I knew the mission of community colleges, the more I fell in love with them,” she said. “It’s a democratic institution. It doesn’t look at where you came from. You could come from nowhere, and we embrace you equally. We are committed to help everyone. That very personally speaks to me, because I came from very little and I received a lot of help from people in China and here, and now I’m in a position to pay back and empower others.”

Wang worked as a special assistant to the president at Roxbury Community College in Boston after she graduated from Harvard, and worked there until 1998. As a Harvard graduate at an underprivileged and mostly African-American college, she had an uphill battle to earn the respect of the students and staff.

“In the beginning, most people on campus were very skeptical. They saw me as some Harvard graduate student coming over there to do some research rather than someone who was genuinely interested in community colleges. I went to visit the counseling department, and I distinctly remembered I got a closed door on my nose,” she says. “It was not reflective of the individual, but it was an underserved community. There was a threat to merge Roxbury with another college and close its doors.”

Wang says she felt more accepted after attaining full tenure accreditation for the first time.

Wang also became known for working directly with students. She teaches one class per semester — either English literature or English as a second language. “I love teaching elemental English courses because I get to see students where they struggle, and where they blossom. It’s very rewarding for me.” She also mentors students one-on-one.

After Roxbury, she earned a doctorate in education at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California, and worked as dean of arts and humanities at Westchester Community College in Valhalla, New York. She recalls walking into her office one day, and finding a former student, his newlywed wife, and his parents waiting for her. The family spoke among themselves in Korean, then the student bowed down almost to the floor. He explained that his parents had come to thank Wang for being his “American mother” as a mentor and seeing him through some hard times.

The student did so well under Wang’s guidance that she was able to get him a $10,000 scholarship.

The scholarship was quite shocking to the parents. The father called Wang from South Korea to ask her if his son — who had a troubled background — had come by the money honestly. She assured him he had worked very hard, and earned it. The student later graduated from SUNY Binghamton and got a job with Ernst and Young.

“The father and mother thought you have to go to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Cornell, or NYU to be successful,” she says. “But you don’t have to go to those Ivy League institutions. You need to pick the right program, and you will be successful.”

In 2012 Wang left Westchester to become vice president of academic affairs at Ocean County College in Toms River. Her hiring as MCCC president in June, replacing the retiring Patricia Donohue, is the first time she has been in charge of an entire campus.

She has jumped into her work by engaging in a campus “listening tour,” and has asked her staff to identify areas where the college can improve immediately by the fall. She asks the same three questions of every staff member she meets. “How did you get here? What keeps you at Mercer? Where do you envision yourself in five years? I want to get to know the path, passion, and talents and expertise personally,” she says.

Wang says one of her top goals is to ensure the college meets the changing needs of students. Students are now a much wider range than they ever have been, everywhere from 15 or 16 year olds in dual enrollment programs to 80-year-old plus lifelong learners. More and more, people are depending on community college to retrain skills because their old jobs have become obsolete, or for professional advancement.

Her second goal is to use technology to improve learning. Wang is a proponent of the “inverted classroom” model, where students use the Internet to view world-class lecturers during their “homework” time, and use class time to engage in active learning with a professor.

Today Wang lives in West Windsor with her second husband and his two children. In 2000 she returned to China for the first time, and between 2000 and 2007, went back twice a year at the invitation of some government agencies who wanted her educational expertise to help develop China’s system of private universities.

She hasn’t forgotten her commitment to openness and democracy, however. “Right now there is no formalized democracy movement in China,” she says. “In my hometown, if you want to get together with 30 or more people, you have to get a permit. Also the Chinese economy has boomed in the last 20 years, and as economic development furthers, life is changed for the better for the overwhelming majority of citizens. When life is a little bit easier, they are far less interested in ideological debate, and instead they are busy trying to make more money than everybody else.

“A handful of people preserve the memory of the Tiananmen Massacre. A couple of my very dear friends are trying to write memoirs, and are collecting documents. We are still very interested in those things, but we can’t really do much about it.” Wang believes that improving education for the population of China will eventually lead to empowerment, just like it did for her in her own life.

Wang believes that community college can be an empowering place for anyone who, like her, comes from humble beginnings. Because Mercer County College is state-funded, and its professors focus entirely on teaching, she believes the college can offer excellent educational opportunities while charging very little tuition (less than $5,000 a year.)

“I am very much looking forward to making Mercer County Community College the best institution it can be,” she says.

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