They say that if you want to get a difficult job done, give it to a busy person.
Case in point: Teachers College Trustee Edith Shih (M.Ed. ’78, M.A. ’77), an Executive Director and Corporate Secretary of C K Hutchison, the Hong Kong-based Fortune 500 investment holding company, and Ruohao Chen, doctoral student (and Edith Shih Scholar) in Adult Learning & Leadership and a leader of Chinese student scholars at TC.
At home in Hong Kong in early March, watching news accounts of New York City’s scramble to respond to the first waves of COVID cases, Shih saw a photo of two medical front-liners wearing black garbage bags as makeshift protective gowns.
“That image was heart-breaking and most touching,” she says.
Flash forward seven weeks: Thanks to an effort organized by Shih and Columbia alumni in Asia and New York and substantially aided by the work of Chen and a corps of fellow TC students (including many from China), medical centers in New York City, New Jersey and Massachusetts have since received shipments of personal protective equipment (PPE) from China — the world’s largest PPE producer — that have included 3 million-plus surgical masks, 21,000 N95 masks, 63,000 face shields, 345,000 medical gloves, 13,000 isolation gowns, and 800 medical goggles, collectively valued at more than $2.2 million. Schools within Columbia received 55,000 of those face masks, including 3,000 directed to TC.
The initiative was launched in mid-March with Columbia alumna Ruifen Xu (’04SEAS, ’07GSAPP) spearheading the sourcing and shipment of PPE from Shanghai, as well as fundraising from Columbia alumni associations in Asia. Shih — former Secretary and President and now Advisor Emeritus of Columbia’s Hong Kong alumni chapter and a recipient of Columbia's Alumni Award in 1993 — took on responsibility for raising funds from Columbia and TC alumni.
Xu and others worked round the clock to purchase, dispatch, collect, and deliver the PPE. But it quickly became apparent that money wasn’t the only issue. “The supply in China was very restricted, and the entry to the U.S. was also very difficult,” says Shih, who helped find solutions to those problems.
Morale was very low, and doctors were scared, as they didn’t have proper PPE. They were going to war, and receiving a shipment of weaponry as reinforcement was a major morale booster— it meant that there were people elsewhere in the world who were thinking of them.
— Anesthesiologist Thomas Lo (’08VP&S), President, Alumni Association of Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons
Shih turned to Chen to recruit a network of volunteers who would be willing to receive smaller shipments. Chen quickly enlisted TC students Minghao Zhang, Reem Alattas, Zhe Shi, Guanren Wang, Yiqun Tao, John Yang, Beichen Tong, Yue Yang, Xingye Chen, Yingying Pan, Limin Yang, Serenity Shen, Jinjian Zhi, Daisy Wu, Ya Cheng, Xiaoyi Wei, Jiaqi Zhou, Lin Li, and Ante Xu; Tang Kejia of Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, and Kay Igwe of the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. The plan called for Chen to gather the shipments received by his fellow students and pass them on to volunteers who could put them in the hands of medical personnel.
Shih compares the process to “little ants moving house,” but ultimately the arrangements worked out, and the supplies reached the intended recipients, who were grateful.
“Morale was very low, and doctors were scared, as they didn’t have proper PPE,” says Thomas Lo (’08VP&S), an anesthesiologist who is affiliated with Montefiore Nyack Hospital and serves as President of the alumni association for Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons. “They were going to war, and receiving a shipment of weaponry as reinforcement was a major morale booster – it meant that there were people elsewhere in the world who were thinking of them.”
Chen subsequently launched his own campaign among TC students and visiting fellows from China to fund a gift of PPE to Columbia University Medical Center. Together with his colleagues Aidi Bian, Ming Zhu, and Xiaoxue Du, and his advisors Henan Cheng and Haiqing Gao, he’s raised $24,217, blowing past his initial goal of $4,000. A shipment of face shields and medical goggles arrived on May 8th.
Columbia is close to our heart, and so is New York City. We are blessed to have the opportunity to give our time and our financial support.
—TC Trustee Edith Shih (M.Ed. ’78, M.A. ’77)
Meanwhile, to bring comfort and support to the whole TC community through music, Chen and his colleagues Quinta Li, Yimi, Xiaoxue Du, and Elune Shi set up a Zoom concert, “Music Bridges US,” featuring student performers and members of their families. The participants included Maureen Yuen, Sycil Mathai (Maureen's husband), Grace Jungmin Han, Yunji Han (Grace’s sister), Heejin Kim (Grace's mother), Jose Lomeli, Tianze Xie, Chris and Katy Ho (both TC alumni), Rebecca Pu, Fei Wang, Frank Xia, Jane Chen, Rainie Zhang, Florence Yang, Ricky Zhao, Tinglei Huang; Hunan Shen of Columbia University, and Strucky Yi and Yiwei Zhu of the Manhattan School of Music. Over 150 members of the community enjoyed the performances, which were prefaced by a greeting from TC President Thomas Bailey, who also thanked the students who had participated in the fundraising and PPE distribution efforts.
“Your selfless determination and dedication to this endeavor remind us that this COVID pandemic recognizes no borders and can only be defeated by all of us working together,” Bailey said. “We must continue to build bridges, and as this evening’s event will demonstrate, music bridges us as well.”
Your selfless determination and dedication to this endeavor remind us that this COVID pandemic recognizes no borders and can only be defeated by all of us working together.
— TC President Thomas Bailey, addresses Chinese students who helped with PPE equipment in introducing a virtual concert they subsequently gave in celebration.
Shih emphasizes that the entire PPE project was a group endeavor. She credits a number of alumni leaders with making it happen, particularly Dr. June Wu (‘96VP&S), Dr. Ernest Chiu (’94VP&S), and Nina Sun (’01SIPA) in New York, and Nick Yen (’91SEAS ‘92SEAS) and Mary Kuo (’92CC) in Singapore.
“Columbia is close to our heart, and so is New York City,” said Shih. “We are blessed to have the opportunity to give our time and our financial support.”
— Justin Harmon