A cosmopolitan dimension:

Asians and Asian-Americans come to Virginia Tech

by Peter Wallenstein

Alumni who attended Virginia Tech (then VPI) in the late 1940s may remember Yvonne Rohran Tung (horticulture '50), perhaps the most exotic member of Virginia Tech's Cosmopolitan Club (now the International Club). Tung hailed from Hong Kong and exemplified the exact opposite of the vast majority of the student population at Virginia Tech-she was not male, not white, not military, and not a Virginian or even an American.

Tung was just one among a number of Asians and Asian-Americans who enrolled at Virginia Tech in the late 1940s. She was certainly not the first student of Asian ancestry to study at Tech-that honor seems to belong to Tak Heung Fung, who came from China to study for the 1920-21 academic year.

The first Asian student to graduate, in 1924, was Tien Liang Jeu, who came to the United States from Hong Kong in 1920, attended VMI for a year, then transferred to Tech. An electrical engineer, he dreamed of returning to Asia, harnessing the Yellow and Yangtse rivers, and providing power for the people of China.

During Jeu's senior year, one freshman was Cato Lee (mechanical engineering '27), also from Hong Kong. The 1927 Bugle describes him as a "speedy hurdler" on the varsity track team and a member of the tennis team. The yearbook quoted a line from Rudyard Kipling and concluded that "the gentleman of the East is not different from the gentleman of the West."

Like Jeu, Lee was a member of the Cosmopolitan Club. The group signaled the presence of international students, some of them non-white, on a "white" campus in a southern state. The first black student, Irving Peddrew III, did not enroll at Tech until 30 years after Cato Lee began his classes in Blacksburg.

Few, if any, students of Asian ancestry enrolled at Tech at any one time before the 1940s. Then a small wave of Asians and Asian-Americans came to Blacksburg, among them Richmond resident Woo Ging Tang (electrical engineering '41) and Hung-yu Loh (electrical engineering M.S. '43), who earned a bachelor's degree from Soochow University in China before enrolling at Tech.

During World War II, Tech had more frequent graduations as students completed their degrees before going off to war. China was America's primary ally in Asia in the fight against Japan, and the September 1944 commencement speaker was W.C. Yang, president of Soochow University, where Hung-yu Loh had done his undergraduate work.

Loh went to Johns Hopkins University to earn a Ph.D. and returned in 1948 to teach at Tech. He taught physics until 1976, winning the prestigious Wine teaching award in 1959. He and his wife lived in faculty row on campus, and their children took degrees from Tech: Eugene Chen Loh (physics, 1955); Evanne Van Loh (biology, 1957); and Eddie Lei Loh (physics, 1961), president of the physics club.

The Cosmopolitan Club re-emerged in 1947 (after a brief life in the 1920s). The club reflected some North American students' interest in foreign cultures as well as the international students' presence at Virginia Tech. Yvonne Tung shared membership in this club with women from Germany, Bulgaria, and Puerto Rico and men from Poland, Syria, Guatemala, Argentina, and Southern Rhodesia. Many were graduate students. Second in nativity only to the United States was China. One of Tung's Asian colleagues in the class of 1950 was Richard Li-Hsi Lou, a chemistry major from Shanghai, China, who served as president of the Cosmopolitan Club his senior year and then stayed on to do graduate work.

Among the Asian and Asian-American students who came to Tech in the 1950s and 1960s was Wye Toh Loke; a chemistry student from Kuala Lumpur, Malaya, he enrolled in 1951 as a freshman and stayed two years. John Ysueh-Ming Chen and Hsing-Chung Yu earned bachelor's degrees in 1957, the 30th anniversary of Cato Lee's graduation, and exemplify the diversity of interests and origins at that time: Chen was from New York City, majored in vocational education, and belonged to the Future Farmers of America, while Yu hailed from Taiwan and belonged to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Kwang-yen Katerine Hsu-a Charlottesville resident, vice-president of the Cosmopolitan Club, and a member of the Hillcrest House Council-graduated in architecture in 1961. Other Tech students her senior year were Katsuko Shimura, a sophomore in home economics from Tokyo, Japan; Taiwoong Chung, a junior in electrical engineering from Seoul, Korea; and Rabindar Nath Singh, a doctoral student in agronomy from Punjab, India.

Today, students of Asian ancestry make up approximately 6 percent of Virginia Tech's total enrollment. Many are Asian Americans. Students from China, Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, and the Philippines have participated in the International Club in the 1990s. Membership today in the Association of Chinese Students and Scholars alone tops 500.

Professor Peter Wallenstein teaches in the history department at Virginia Tech. This essay is drawn in part from his book, Virginia Tech, Land-Grant University, 1872-1997: History of a School, a State, a Nation.

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