Each week, we offer a Q&A with a local personality. Today, 65-year-old Pam Lau, vice president for academic services at Parkland College, chats with staff writer Paul Wood. Lau is set to become the college's sixth president when Tom Ramage retires in 2022. And she happens to love to run.
Where did you grow up and how did you get here?
I grew up in the Republic of Singapore, a city-state on an island just north of the equator. I came to the U.S. together with my husband, Lawson, as an international student. I was admitted as a grad student in philosophy at the University of Chicago; Lawson studied English literature at Wheaton College. Some years later, we came to Urbana-Champaign for Lawson to do his doctoral work in communications here. We initially thought that we would be here for a few years, but like so many others, we did not leave.
Any favorite family stories?
Our daughter, Andreana, won the local spelling bee three years in a row. This meant a chance to take part in the then-Scripps Howard National Bee in Washington, D.C., a trip sponsored by The News-Gazette. Thanks to Andreana’s genius (fueled by her mother’s diligence!) and The News-Gazette’s willingness to encourage young student achievement, our graduate-student, budget-conscious family of four enjoyed three memorable trips to the nation’s capital.
You were a young mother when you started at Parkland College in 1995 as a part-time faculty member and soon became full-time. How did you balance work and family life?
Planning and time management directed by priorities. For example, we made sure that we would enjoy a home-cooked dinner together several times a week. Equally important was the fact that Lawson and I believed in sharing housework and parenting responsibilities, and that characterized our marriage from the get-go. This certainly helped me do what I needed in terms of teaching and taking care of the family.
In college, you studied philosophy. At Parkland, you started out teaching developmental reading courses to at-risk students. What drew you to doing this?
Initially, this was an unexpected opportunity. Connie Hosier, the then-reading program director, took a chance with me, and for that, I remain grateful. However, I was drawn to staying in developmental education because it allowed me to make a definite difference in students’ lives. Many of the students in my classes did not have the best prior experiences in education for a multiplicity of reasons. Teaching developmental students meant reopening for them the opportunity to learn. One of my first students was a refugee from Indochina who missed out on years of education while staying in a refugee camp in Thailand before receiving permission to enter the U.S. It was a joy to not only see her improve her reading skills but to see her go on to graduate from the Parkland Dental Hygiene program. Developmental education also immersed me into the egalitarian mission of community colleges. The belief that everyone who wants to learn at the post-secondary level should be given the chance resonated deeply with me.
You had an important role obtaining just the second Title III grant in the college’s history. How have you handled the economic forces that Parkland has had to deal with in recent years?
The decline in state support for our educational mission has presented us with a range of challenges. It limits innovations to improve the quality of teaching and learning as well as services to support student success. Looking for grants is one key way to help with limited revenues. The current Title III project called Pathways to Student Success is a five-year federal grant that provides professional development opportunities for faculty to redesign curriculum and teaching. We have hired academic coaches to provide intrusive support to students. We implemented software to guide students to completion. Likewise, National Science Foundation grants enable the college to support Precision Agriculture Technology, promote unmanned aerial systems (aka drones) curriculum and develop curriculum to train agriculture applicator technicians. Just this week, we were awarded a $1.5 million Workforce Equity Initiative state grant. We will use this to launch programming with comprehensive services to move students through short-term training into jobs that pay a living wage.
Do you have a special vision for what your presidency should do?
Being the president of Parkland College is still a few years away. The context in which we do our work as the community’s college is continually evolving. Our challenge now and in the future is to keep an eye on external factors while remaining true to the central functions of educating the community through programs for transfer, training tailored to industry and workforce needs, and opportunities to deliver continuing education for all. My work, together with Parkland’s leaders, is to ensure that Parkland continues to provide high-quality, well-rounded education at an affordable price for the residents of District 505. Our mission is to engage the community in learning.
What is it that you love about running?
My daily routine is to start my day with a jog around the subdivision. Google Fit tells me that I ran 3.25 miles this morning in 27 minutes. I do this because it wakes me up, makes my body feel good and readies my mind for the day’s work. My husband, Lawson, will take credit for this healthful habit as he introduced me to jogging when we were dating, and I have not stopped. A cheap date that keeps giving.
Your mom worked full-time until age 81. Do you intend to do the same?
My mother worked as a matron (equivalent to a director of nursing) in a senior citizens home and retired at age 81. Mother never did things in half-measure. She modeled a high standard of excellence. This was how she expressed her Christian faith. Always doing her best for the Lord with indefatigable energy. She walked fast and did not use the elevator. I am blessed with my mother’s genes. More than that, she instilled in me diligence and excellence. Will I work till I am 81? Only the Lord knows. But I have a strong feeling that I will not be riding into the sunset for a good while yet.
Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?
I have seen a fair bit of the world and been to five continents. In recent times, our family has traveled to Ecuador and visited the Galapagos Islands. We drove around New Zealand and stopped by Hobbiton. A cruise around the Baltic Sea took us from Oslo to St. Petersburg. We have tasted the charms of Dubrovnik, Croatia. A trip to Israel was memorable. So the bucket list has been considerably shortened and we are actually unsure of where we should go next. I welcome suggestions.
Tell me about your favorite pet.
We had dogs growing up. My sisters and I took turns having favorites. Mine was Rover. No particular breed. He was what my father called Heinz 57, a dog with many strains of “dogness” in his DNA. What I loved about Rover was that he was willing to sit by me and listen without complaint to my recitation of joys and woes of the day gone by. An early lesson about unconditional love.
What would you order for your last meal?
What I have for breakfast every day. Whole oats and chia seeds soaked in almond milk overnight and served cold with fresh fruit, crushed almonds, granola, bran flakes, raw honey and a touch of cinnamon.
What’s the happiest memory of your life?
It is hard to say what is the happiest memory as is there are so many to choose from. They range from being baptized in the Straits of Johore, getting married and when Andreana and JohnMark were born. A less meaningful but nonetheless charming memory was seeing my first snowfall ever. I sat riveted by the window of our college apartment watching the snowflakes come down, thrilled that I could witness an act of nature that I had hitherto only seen in pictures. (You have to remember that I grew up in hot and humid Singapore, where daily temperatures rise to 90 degrees and humidity of 85 percent is an everyday affair.) The charm of course subsided when I had to learn to drive with snow on the pavement.