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In a story seemingly made-for-TV, Cliff Huang, Ph.D. ’68, weaves a tale that is truly rags to (academic) riches. It’s a success story that Huang is quick to attribute to family, friends and mentors – and one that led him to recently make a $1.5 million gift to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This gift has established the Chin-Su and Yu-Mei Huang Fund in Economics, in honor and memory of his parents, which is designated to support graduate students in the department of economics in the College of Arts & Sciences. Huang also has plans to add to the fund in the future through a significant estate gift.

Cliff Huang poses by the Old Well to commemorate the earning of his doctorate from UNC-Chapel Hill.
Cliff Huang poses by the Old Well to commemorate the earning of his doctorate from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1968.

Born in Houlong, Taiwan, in 1938, in a poverty-stricken family, Huang grew up as one of six surviving children squeezed into a tiny two-bedroom house which doubled as banana ripening chambers for his father’s banana business. His father had one year of schooling and his mother could not read or write, but they understood the importance and value of education. Despite the economic hardship, Huang’s parents insisted on sending all of their children to school. It was Huang’s “innocent dream” to not only attend university, but to study abroad as well.

Due to sacrifices made by his parents and siblings, Huang was able to ride his knack for mathematics through a successful high school tenure on to a degree in economics at Tunghai University. Then, after compulsory military service, he was accepted as a master’s student at National Taiwan University. It was through a faculty mentor, Jung-Chao Liu, that Huang began to realize his dream of studying abroad. Liu had recently accepted a faculty position at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas. In the process, he secured a scholarship for Huang to be a graduate student in the statistics department at SMU.

Huang, however, was hesitant to accept the offer because doing so still required his family to pay for airfare, the required deposit for a U.S. visa and living expenses. “My father sensed I had something on my mind that I did not want to talk to him about,” explained Huang in his autobiography, A Blessed Life: Autobiography of Cliff J. Huang. “A week later, I finally told him about Professor Liu’s offer. To my surprise, he said to me that I should go abroad and that he would find a way to come up with the money.” Through family savings, gifts and loans from friends, Huang and his family were able to scrape together enough for his voyage to the United States.

Some advice from another mentor changed Huang’s course again. One month before departing for Southern Methodist University, he visited his statistics professor from Tunghai University, Professor Ke-Ming Tian. “Professor Tian suggested that I might want to consider attending UNC-Chapel Hill since I was always an economics major, and UNC was very strong in that area. At Southern Methodist, I would be a statistics major.” Huang applied and was admitted to UNC, but without financial aid. He took the gamble and left Taiwan for Chapel Hill in September 1964.

After 48 hours of travel, Huang landed at the Raleigh-Durham airport and took a taxi to campus. He had no friends, no family, no place to stay and only $400 in his pockets. After spending his first two nights in North Carolina at the Carolina Inn, where it cost him $12 for a room and $6 for a piece of chicken in the dining room, he was introduced to two Taiwanese students who took him to campus dining, where he could get a meal for 40 cents. They also escorted him to the registrar’s office. “The registrar asked me for something like $250 for the first semester tuition fee,” remembers Huang. “I was shocked and embarrassed to tell him I did not have the money for the tuition. He looked at me, clearly wondering how a foreign student could come all the way from Taiwan to study with no money for tuition. He seemed sympathetic and asked me to wait while he went inside an office. A few minutes later, he came out and told me the university would waive my tuition. I was so relieved.”

Later that day, the economics department chair, Ralph W. Pfouts, told him that they would find financial aid for Huang in the second semester, and the next year he was awarded a full scholarship for the rest of his doctoral studies at UNC.

“Looking back, I am so grateful for the financial generosity of the tuition waiver that made my education at UNC possible,” Huang said. “My UNC education helped make it possible for me to fulfill my dream of being a college professor. I constantly remind myself of a Chinese idiom that says, ‘When you drink water, think of its origin.’ Funding scholarships for students in need, just as I was some 50 years ago, would be the only way I could ever repay my deep gratitude to my alma mater.”

Huang went on to a 50-year academic career and retired as a professor at Vanderbilt University. During that time, he often returned to Taiwan and visited China to engage in teaching, lecturing and collaborating on research in economics, particularly in the field of productivity and efficiency. He currently lives in Pasadena, California, and has two daughters, one son and six grandchildren.

“Dr. Huang’s gift to the economics department at UNC in support of graduate students reflects his kind heart, and the heart he has modeled and inspired among his family, in gratitude toward all those who supported his dream,” said Donna Gilleskie, chair of the department of economics. “It also reflects his education in economics, his enthusiasm for the discipline and his confidence in its lessons: it is an investment in each of the students who enter our Ph.D. program. We hope to invest wisely and look forward to seeing its fruits.”

“It is always so marvelous to see a Carolina graduate who goes out into the world, accomplishes big things and yet always remembers the experiences and opportunities they had back in their student days,” said Terry Rhodes, dean of the College. “Cliff Huang expressing his gratitude for the opportunity that was awarded to him in 1964 through this generous commitment truly ‘pays-it-forward’ and paves the way for current and future graduate students in the department of economics. We are so grateful for his commitment to today’s graduate students and for inspiring others by sharing his story.”

By Andy Berner

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