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On the Record: Hoi Ning Ngai

On the Record: Hoi Ning Ngai

By Sarah Lehr

What drew you to Kenyon?

I went to Dartmouth [College] for undergrad. I’m turning 35 this year, and I think that college was still the best four years of my life. I’m a big believer in the small liberal arts and the kind of support that students can get from being in a community like that. I’ve worked at a number of large institutions, and I was really interested in being back in a smaller atmosphere. As an adviser at [the University of California, Los Angeles], students sometime came to me and said, “You know, I feel kind of like a number.” I grew up in New York and, even though I loved the city, I felt like I was a sardine in a can.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing higher education today?

Students are on this trajectory. You take these classes to go from middle school to high school. You take these classes to go from high school to college. But, at what point do we think about, well, why are we taking these steps? What kind of impact do we want to have on the world? I went to Stuyvesant High School in New York and it was an amazing experience. But it was highly structured. It was all about just go ラ just go to college. That was the expectation.

At college, did you ever feel trapped in a trajectory?

I was na?vely pre-med until my senior winter, and I love working with pre-health or pre-med students because I love asking, “Why are you interested in that?” I wish that I had been pushed to self-reflect more. My parents were great. They weren’t pressure-cooker parents. I think I went pre-med because everyone else did it. I did it because it was structured. It was a path. In my gut, I just didn’t feel inclined towards medicine and my grades weren’t that strong in my pre-med classes. After sophomore slump, I was just clawing my way up the hill. I did go through the entire pre-med curriculum and I took organic chem twice. I decided I would take one more bio class in my senior year, and I decided that if I did well, it was a sign from a higher power that I was meant to at least think about med-school. I failed that first midterm, and it was too late to drop the class.

When did you realize that you were interested in higher education?

When I was at Dartmouth, I was really involved in leadership development programs, conflict mediation and Asian-American communities, and I was in a sorority. After I graduated, I felt like I was going back to Dartmouth all the time. People who usually do that, go back for homecoming or for the parties, but I was going back to work with student life. I was going back to sit on panels or to work with career services. I love working with college students and I’m better one-on-one. I feel like I’ve impacted the world by inspiring students. Do I think about students all the time? Yes.

Back in the day, the professions were teacher, lawyer, minister, homemaker or farmer ラ they were really delineated. I try to get students to look at their possibilities more expansively. Let’s say modern medicine allows all of us to live until we’re 80. Even if you retire at 60, if you wanted a different career every 10 years, you could have four careers.

What do you do in your free time?

I really enjoy working out. I teach a class at the [Kenyon Athletic Center] Tuesday nights from 6 to 7 p.m. I live in Gambier, and I walk to work. I don’t know how to bike or drive. I’m a big foodie. Some of my friends and colleagues were worried I wouldn’t have enough options in Gambier, but I think if you have one or two mainstays, that’s fine if they’re really great. I have to say, I’m a big fan of the Village Inn.

Any favorite menu items?

The chicken wings.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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