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At 33, Luoluo Hong is head of the class
 
By Teresa Peneguy Paprock
 

When she was born, her parents named her Luoluo, which means “happiness” in Mandarin Chinese.

 

Today, Luoluo Hong’s name could not be more appropriate. Her handshake exudes confidence, which she will need in great measure as the new Dean of Students at the University of Wisconsin. Her smile is genuine, her eyes empathetic, her sense of humor sharp. And Luoluo (pronounced “low-low”) is surprisingly down to earth for a woman who is the Dean at a Big 10 University at the tender age of 33.

 

She is a woman who has it all. But it was a long journey from there to here. “I’ve been preparing all my life to have a job like this,” she says.

 

Born to immigrant Taiwanese parents in Annapolis, Maryland, Luoluo lived in America but experienced the isolated and sheltered life of many Chinese girls. She had little social experience, instead keeping to her studies and getting the excellent grades her parents expected. “My parents were very conservative,” she said. “I had education as a value pummeled into me. I was aware that my parents made huge sacrifices for us (children) – my father worked three to four jobs at a time to support us. Our childhood was very disciplined.”

 

Luoluo’s description of her childhood may be an understatement. In fact, she witnessed and experienced severe domestic abuse throughout her childhood. And, like many Chinese girls, she was given two conflicting messages about sexuality: 1) sex is bad, and 2) women must always be obedient to men.

 

In her freshman year at Amherst College, she felt lost and overwhelmed. While studying to be a doctor – what her parents wanted her to be – she began to attend parties in an attempt to fit in socially. One night, she was raped by another student she barely knew.  The term “acquaintance rape” hadn’t been coined yet, and Luoluo was confused and shattered by the experience. At the same time, she would discover later, it was a defining moment for her.

 

Over the next couple of years, Luoluo would have to face her attacker almost daily – and because she had learned the lesson of female submissiveness so well, he victimized her more than once. The fact that she was attractive and Asian did not help. When she sought counsel from friends or professionals, it was suggested that she had somehow provoked the attack in an effort to rebel against her conservative upbringing.  (At the time, she had very long hair. Later, she would cut it short to symbolize her commitment to feminism and female empowerment.)

 

Luoluo continued to work hard in school and make good grades, but she developed an eating disorder (a common result of sexual trauma) and clinical depression. No one around her seemed to be aware of her pain. “I was left to cope in a very personal way,” she says.

 

In one of those amazing twists of fate that always happen in movies and occasionally happen in real life, Luoluo was offered a part-time job as a peer health educator just a couple of weeks after the rape. She found herself helping other students deal with problems like alcohol and other drug abuse, eating disorders, sexually transmitted diseases, and unwanted pregnancy. Although it would be some time before she would recognize herself as a rape victim, she assisted many other students in their healing, and her path for her own future began to take a different turn.

 

“In my junior year, I was assigned to read a book called ‘I Never Called it Rape’,” says Luoluo, jumping up from her couch and reaching up to a shelf in her bookcase. She pulls down a red and yellow paperback by Robin Warshaw, saying,  “This is my bible.  Anyway, I think the teacher guessed that I was a victim. She sensed that I felt used, dirty, and not worth much. I sat up and read it all night, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is me.’ What happened to me finally had a name.”

 

The realization that she hadn’t “asked for it” radically changed her understanding of herself as a woman and as an Asian. “I understood rape as an act of violence, of sexism, and of racism,” she says. “I realized that I had been specifically targeted by this acquaintance, who was into pornography of Asian women. By senior year, I was an activist on campus, working for the Rape Crisis Center.”

 

The obsequious, self-effacing Luoluo was gone forever. In her place was a stronger, more confident Luoluo. “I realized that I am about trying to change something,” she said. “It was an epiphany for me. At the eleventh hour, I applied to other schools and decided to go into public health.”

 

This decision was a huge risk for Luoluo. Her parents had expected her to be a doctor, and she had dutifully obeyed, planning her education and her life around their goal. But she realized that she wanted to work with college students, and that her parents’ dream was not her dream. She went on to graduate magna cum laude from Yale University, with a Master’s in Public Health.

 

“Once she realized I was not going to be a doctor, my mom did not talk to me for nine months,” says Luoluo. (Today, they get along well.) “It was not a lucrative choice, but it was my passion. My work chose me. I would do this for free.”

 

Over the years, Luoluo got counseling and learned more about her upbringing, her experience as a college freshman, and her hopes for the future. “I became a woman and found out who I was,” she said of the four years she spent at Louisiana State University College of Education, where she earned her doctorate of Philosophy in Educational Leadership and Research. 

 

By now she had realized that wanted a broader experience of student life, not limited to health issues. After her graduation from LSU, she accepted a position there as Director of Wellness Education and Outreach Services. Before long a Dean’s position came open, but her age worked against her. She chose instead to move on to a position as Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at the small Shepherd College in West Virginia, a position she held for two years. 

 

In 2002, the Dean of Students’ position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison became available.  “I never thought I’d get the job,” she says, but she applied anyway.

Her position at Shepherd College had been “a very difficult professional challenge, but I was able to really sink my teeth into it,” she said. “I wanted the complexity and the diversity of a larger campus.”

 

During the interview process at the UW, she prepared herself to hear that she was still too young. “When they called me and told me I was hired, I screamed!” she laughs.  “I’m no fool – I know I have more to learn. But I am thrilled and honored to have this opportunity and I’m positioned to do some really good things.”

 

Since she joined the UW administration this fall, Luoluo has brought her own unique style to the position. Her open-door policy was a shock to students and administrators alike. Her office is colorful and friendly, with comfy furniture (“It has good feng shui, doesn’t it?” she smiles). Her shelves are full of dolls and Ty Beanie Babies - Luoluo is a serious collector of Beanies, with more than 400 of them.

 

Luoluo is quite conscious of the peculularities of her situation – she is the only 33-year-old Asian woman to be the Dean of Students at a Top-10 University. “It’s a very public position,” she says, adding, “but then, I’ve always lived in sort of a fishbowl.”

 

Because of the intensity of her work, Luoluo is very purposeful about how she spends her time away from campus. “Even though it’s a public position, I have a very private life,” she says. Her husband, Christopher Aamodt (“He’s a Nordic,” she grins) is her best friend. Christopher, who is an emergency room technician at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, graduated from UW-Madison in 1988. “He worries a little about how much time I spend here, but he’s very supportive,” she says.

 

Luoluo loves to escape into a good book or movie, and fantasy is one of her favorite genres. A J.R.R. Tolkien fan since childhood, she has read “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Hobbit” many times. As for the movies, “I saw ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ seven times, and I’ve seen ‘The Two Towers’ twice so far.” No doubt, she’s seen it again since the interview. “I believe Tolkien’s works have great educational value,” she says. “They have much to teach about leadership and hope and being human.” Other favorite pastimes: dancing, cooking, piano, and travel.

Luoluo and Christopher have made the decision not to have children, due to the demands of Luoluo’s career, but they have plenty of little feet around the house: Toby, the Cocker Spaniel, and Mozart, Whitney, Aiwa, Bacchus, Athena, and Puck, the cats. 

 

Summarizing the duties of the Dean of Students position as “fixing peoples’ problems,” Luoluo deals with a schedule dictated by the needs of others. The hot issue of the moment: conflicts over the funding of special interest groups with money from student fees, a problem that has caused discord between students. “I want to work with the students so their voices can be heard, so there can be a win-win solution,” she says.

 

At any university, some students are deeply involved and others hang out at the fringes. As for those who are involved, who take their education seriously and care what happens on campus, “I am so impressed with their caliber. I really love the students here.”  She hopes conflict over funding issues will not have a lasting effect. “My biggest fear is that the students will be so hurt that they will give up on finding a way to agree,” she says.

 

Other hot issues on campus that have been in the news include the high incidence of binge-drinking in Madison and a high sexual assault rate. Luoluo’s background in both issues equips her to confront both issues head-on.

 

Because the UW has had four deans in the last three years, one of Luoluo’s goals is to help develop leadership and cohesion of the staff. “The UW’s greatest strengths are also its greatest liabilities,” she says. “There has been a history of shared governance between students, faculty and staff, but because there are so many opinions, clarity can be hard to achieve.”

 

Another challenge: the decision making process at the UW is decentralized compared to many other universities. “There’s lots of great things going on, but things aren’t communicated very well,” she said. “We have to make a more cohesive effort.”

Luoluo also plans to redefine the Dean’s office to be more responsive to student needs, as well as the needs of their parents, who are becoming more involved these days. It’s a good thing, she says, because “this generation of students is facing greater interpersonal challenges than any other generation, and at the same time, society is becoming more and more alienating.”

 

It is hard to imagine anyone more prepared to help those students than Luoluo, who has been through the worst and come out a victor. “I've done a lot of work to achieve health, and I can role model the way,” she says. “It’s about integrity, boundaries, and balance.”

 

  Teresa Peneguy Paprock

This article originally appeared in ANEW Magazine. Teresa Peneguy Paprock / words & stuff freelancing retains the copyright to this article and it may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without express permission. For reprint rights, contact Teresa Peneguy Paprock at words@chorus.net or P.O. Box 5207, Madison, WI, 53705.

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