Vanessa C. Pong ’88 is an educator, philanthropist, and mother. Born and raised in Hong Kong, educated in the United States, and working in the Himalayas, Pong has a truly international and holistic view of education. She takes to heart the Hotchkiss values of global citizenship, personal integrity, and sharing the love of learning, and strives to instill these values in both future-Bearcat, seven-year-old daughter Amelia, and in children all over the world.
After receiving her B.S. from Cornell in 1993, Pong earned first an M.Ed. from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and then an M.S. from the University of Hong Kong. “I have always been drawn to education and children. I grew up in a big family that values family, tradition, and education -- both of my grandfathers established schools for the underprivileged, and my mother was a principal of a school. I took care of my many cousins when we were younger, and now I am close to my nieces and nephews. My great-grandfather would always show us his ten fingers and say, ‘This is your family – no matter how they behave, they are family.’”
Pong began her formal education in a traditional way at a regimented elementary school. “This gave me a good foundation for holding on to my roots. I think that discipline can help build character, and this is especially important for young students as they begin their education. You are better equipped to handle freedom if you come from a more regimented beginning,” she says.
Pong’s interest in the Himalayans began ten years ago when she met His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, the founder of Live to Love International. She recalls, “I was very inspired by the Gyalwang Drukpa. I was not a Buddhist at the time, but I admired his aspirations in serving the people and the culture of the Himalayan region. He was building the Druk White Lotus School back then, and though he is a Himalayan monk, and we have a preconceived idea that Buddhist monks are very traditional, the Gyalwang Drukpa is different. He sees the need for change along with the need to preserve the culture. He gives his students directives, and they grow and learn while helping the region they call home.”
Pong first visited the Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh in 2008. “Ladakh is located in Jammu and Kashmir, which borders India, China, and Pakistan. Once a thriving economy, the region has suffered greatly since borders closed and is faced with political instability, increasing dependence on governmental aid, and the disproportionate impact of climate change.”
Following the vision of the Gyalwang Drukpa, the mission of the Druk White Lotus School is to provide an effective modern education that uses current technology while also maintaining traditional values and culture – an unprecedented project for the Ladakh region. According to Pong, “The school couples cutting-edge solutions with ancient philosophies to tackle current environmental issues and address educational needs. Working with educators, engineers, civic leaders, families, students, and architects from around the world, Live to Love crafts sustainable solutions, integrating education and environmental protection to best serve India. The school follows the Indian educational system and is the only eco-friendly school in the region.”
The hope is that the school can help revive an economically depressed region by giving the children of the next generation both an appreciation of their culture and the skills they need to further the economies of their region and to solve 21st-century problems. Live to Love also puts particular emphasis on educating young girls and empowering them with the confidence and competence to take leadership roles within their communities.
As the inaugural president of Live to Love International, Pong has focused on helping to build schools and hospital clinics across the Himalayas and shares the organization’s interest in empowering women and young girls. “Gender equity has not yet been achieved, but I feel that women are very strong. I am not a feminist as such, but women endure a great deal.” Pong is teaching her young daughter to approach life with a “can-do” attitude and a positive outlook. “In today’s world, you can’t achieve much in isolation. You must see how the world works, and bring home with you what you learn. Amelia has seen true poverty in Nepal, and I recently took her to South Africa. We were there when Nelson Mandela was in the hospital, and there was a lot of press. I explained racial discrimination to her. This kind of education is vitally important in today’s world. I want to teach Amelia to be independent and not feel that marriage is her only goal, as many Asian women are pressured to believe. And consumerism is driving the economy in a very materialistic way. The majority of women don’t realize their potential.”
It is the hope of Live to Love and Pong that providing cutting-edge education that is deeply rooted in Indian culture will inspire the next generation to act as guardians of their culture, their home, and their environment. “Though we are a small organization, we are making a difference, including in ways that go beyond education. For example, our clinics have recently helped hundreds of cataract patients.”
For Pong, much of this comes down to empathy, inclusivity, and acceptance. Through positive thinking and action, we can all make a difference. She gives the example of garbage. “In Hong Kong, we have landfills and little recycling. But if everybody took one step toward achieving a goal such as recycling, one act, one step at a time, we could make things better. It starts with one person.”
At Hotchkiss, Pong developed friendships and warm relationships. “The academics were a given, but you can gain so much more. I took Amelia to visit Hotchkiss and the Druk White Lotus School in the same year. She found good friends at both schools and was able to communicate despite cultural and language barriers – a true testament to the spirit of learning and friendship.”