Local philanthropist Betty Kwan Chinn was never allowed to attend school as a child and was once even beaten for having the audacity to peek into a classroom window, but she'll soon hold a doctorate degree.
Cal Poly Humboldt recently informed Chinn she will be receiving an honorary doctorate of human letters at this year's commencement ceremony in May, making Chinn the first to receive an honorary degree from the newly christened polytechnic and just the 13th in the campus' 109-year history.
"Ms. Chinn is exemplary of service before self and upholds the university's vision of a more just and equitable society," Jackson wrote. "Turning her personal hardships into a passion, she has spent the past four decades working to restore hope and dignity to those experiencing homelessness."
When Chinn was just seven years old, her wealthy, western-educated family was persecuted during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution and forced from their home. With her mother jailed and her siblings taken to labor camps, Chinn was left homeless in the city of Kaiping, forced to wear a sign that read "child of the devil." Chinn — who was once forced to kneel in broken glass and beaten for peeking through the window of a grade school classroom — endured a campaign of torture and ostracism for four years that left her mute before she and three siblings fled the city on foot, hiked hundreds of miles and swam across the Pearl River Delta to freedom in Hong Kong, where she relearned how to talk.
Once in the United States, Chinn eventually married Leung Chinn, a physics professor at what was then Humboldt State University, and moved to Eureka. When Chinn noticed one of her sons' classmates was hungry, her family living out of a car, her outreach efforts began. She quickly went from feeding one girl to one family, then two, then dozens, and would then spend decades quietly feeding and caring for Humboldt County's most destitute residents. In time, people took notice, which enabled Chinn to do more. She used a grant that came as a part of then California First Lady Maria Shriver's Minerva Award to build a public shower facility at St. Vincent de Paul, believing everyone deserves the dignity that comes with being clean, and later the notoriety that came with winning the Presidential Citizen's Medal — the second highest civilian honor in the country — from President Barack Obama, to forming a nonprofit, which has gone on to open a homeless day center, a family shelter and multiple transitional housing projects.
Cal Poly Humboldt Provost Jenn Capps said the university's honorary degree committee looks to "acknowledge and celebrate local heroes" and can nominate one person annually to the California State University Chancellor's Office. When Chinn's name came forward to the committee, Capps said the decision was unanimous.
"When her name was put forward, everyone was like, 'Of Course.' Obviously,'" Capps said, adding that the chancellor's office signed off on the honor "enthusiastically."
Chinn said word of the honorary degree came as a "total, total surprise" but she's overjoyed, saying it will hold a special place in her heart. Denied an education in China, Chinn was too old to attend school when she emigrated to the United States. But she said she has always tried to stress the importance of education in her work, filling hundreds of backpacks with school supplies to give to homeless students every fall, and for decades prior to the pandemic taking homeless students to see HSU's commencement ceremony every spring to show them what they could achieve with hard work. Sometimes, she says, she dreamed of what it would be like herself to walk across the stage in a cap and gown to be handed a degree.
"I'm very grateful," Chinn said. "I'm so excited."
In his letter, Jackson said Chinn stands as an example to the community of what is possible.
"Ms. Chinn is a visionary leader and an inspiration to the entire Humboldt community," Jackson wrote in the letter to campus. "She calls every day an opportunity to give back, a gift in itself. She is a role model for our students and for us all, proving that one person can indeed change the world."
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.