Dr. Ting Ni’s remarkable story has inspired countless students throughout her tenure. (And it’s even suppressed a bit of whining by students who could otherwise be tempted to take their education for granted.)
Ni, a native of Tianjin, China, grew up during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution. For 10 years, between 1966 and 1976, schools were closed in China under Mao Zedong’s orders. And at 16, Ni was sent to a village to be “re-educated” by peasant labor. She was told she would spend the rest of her life working in this village.
She spent long days doing hard labor in the fields. “Peasants would work from dawn until it was dark when you couldn’t see anymore,” she said. But in the evening, she taught herself English by listening to a radio, thirsty for knowledge.
Prior to the Cultural Revolution, both of Ni’s parents were educators, and she grew up on a college campus surrounded by an academic environment.
“Teaching was always something I wanted to do, even when I was really young,” she said. “My first dream was to go to college. The Cultural Revolution interrupted my dream, but that dream didn’t die.”
Her parents, labeled as counter-revolutionaries, were punished. Her father was sent to what Ni compares to a concentration camp, and her brother was sent to work in a dangerous coal mine thousands of miles away.
Yet her mother would send her used books, which were hard to come by as libraries were closed, and many books had been destroyed.
During this period, Ni heard about a national exam — administered by the government — that the young people of China could take in order to attend college. But Ni had to be recommended by her coworkers. Her mother sent gifts, towels, noodles and sugar as incentive to village officials so that she could be allowed to take the examinations.
Ni rode her bicycle five hours to take the exam, which was later declared invalid.
But in 1978, another exam was issued when the Chinese government reopened its colleges and universities. With only three days to study, Ni took
the exam and was accepted.
“Students use me as a model,” she said. “I share my experiences with my students in class. One of my students told me that whenever he felt tired, he thought of me and said, ‘I have no excuse to not study hard.’ I’m happy to be an inspirational force for students.”
Ni studied four years of world history at Nankai University at Tianjin and then earned her master’s degree in American history in 1984. “I became fascinated with American history,” she said. “I had always wondered why the U.S. could make so much progress in such a short period of time.”
In 1986, she received a Fulbright Scholarship and traveled to Indiana University to study American history. She earned her doctoral degree in 1996 and was hired by Saint Mary’s in 1997.
In 2004, Ni returned to China — again on a Fulbright Scholarship — to teach American history to young Chinese students. Her hope was to build a bridge between the two countries by educating young people about the true history not always found in textbooks.
“I benefitted greatly from studying U.S. history,” she said. “I push my students to think about bigger, grander subjects. I benefitted from both cultures. I see the advantage of education, and I hope my students appreciate the opportunity. If our students put energy and efforts into their work, they can be the best in their fields.”
Dr. Ni is most proud of her students’ achievements, listing alumni who have gone on to grad schools and law schools, students with whom she continues to stay in touch.
“It’s been a very rewarding experience, especially when students thank you after graduation. I want (my students) to remember me as a passionate teacher who wanted them to be successful and work hard and be productive and good citizens.”
In her retirement, Dr. Ni said she will most miss the interaction with students. “Teaching is something I am very passionate about,” she said.
“Being with students makes you feel young. Every day I want to get up to meet the challenge. I’ll have to find a way to keep that spirit in retirement.”
Dr Ni’s plans for retirement are to continue teaching U.S. history to college students in China in the summers, serve as a Chinese translator, volunteer, cook good food, exercise, bike, and travel (particularly to Europe). She is also considering learning a musical instrument.
This article, written by Deb Nahrgang, was previously published in the Spring 2014 Saint Mary’s Magazine.