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Tough childhood motivates professor

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Posted: Friday, September 23, 2011 12:17 pm | Updated: 12:22 pm, Mon Sep 26, 2011.

Journalism professor Yong Tang was always hungry.

Born in the Sichuan province in the southwest part of China, Tang would run home from school every day to see if his mother had any food in the kitchen. If not, he was left to the two meals a day he shared with his six brothers and sisters.

"When I was born, the country was still very poor at that time," said Tang, who has been a professor at Western Illinois University since July. "We were facing very severe, very serious food shortages. We didn't have enough food, so most of the time we didn't have dinner. We just had breakfast and lunch in order to save food."

That constant hunger, along with having to work in the fields with his family, drove Tang to excel in school, especially in his writing classes.

"When I was a high school student, I wrote very good articles," Tang said. "My articles were always praised by my teacher as a model for other high school students to learn, so I was very proud of that experience."

His hard work paid off. In 1989, Tang was accepted to study English literature and culture at Sichuan International Studies University as the first college student in his family - and his village.

"It was big news in my village," Tang said. "The village had organized a free movie for all the villagers to see in order to celebrate this landmark event in my village. My family also organized a banquet and invited all the family members, relatives and villagers to come to attend the banquet. It was a really exciting experience."

That wasn't enough for Tang, however. He wanted more. In 1993, Tang enrolled in the China School of Journalism to pursue his passion: reporting. There, he learned the skills necessary to become the international news editor at the People's Daily, a Beijing-based newspaper with a circulation of 3 to 4 million.

However, Tang still wasn't satisfied. In 2004, Tang entered the philosophy in international journalism doctorate program at the Communication University of China.

"When I went to the People's Daily, I felt I still needed to learn more, so that's why I pursued my first doctorate degree in international journalism," Tang said. "At night I was a night shift editor, in the day time I became a Ph.D. student."

Tang's demanding days and long nights at the People's Daily led him to Washington D.C. in 2004. As a correspondent for his Chinese paper, he interviewed people such as former President Jimmy Carter, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Washington Post managing editor Philip Bennet.

But then, his appetite changed. Tang decided after years of reporting, he wanted to become a professor.

"I wanted to become a professor, and most accomplished reporters turn out to be professors," Tang said. "It makes sense. They have a lot of professional experience, and they can teach their students how to become better next-generation reporters. I said that might be a good choice. "

After working as a correspondent, Tang pursued a master's degree in international policy and practice at George Washington University on a full scholarship. He then moved to Pennsylvania State University in 2008, where he began a second doctorate in the philosophy of mass communications on a full scholarship.

"I think it is better to have a degree from a prestigious American university, so that's why I pursued my second doctorate degree," Tang said.

Though he is still pursuing his second doctorate, Tang got his first break as a professor at Western, which has proved to be no less daunting than his other accomplishments.

"I'm still trying to settle down," Tang said. "It takes time to adapt myself to a totally different environment; especially (since) it is the first time for me to be a professor in America. Many things are different. Even the weather, the city, is so different. I come from a very, very urban city.

"I came from Beijing, a very cosmopolitan city, very big. Washington D.C. is also very cosmopolitan, very big. The state college (Pennsylvania State University) is very small, but here it is tiny. The cities I've lived in have gotten smaller and smaller," Tang added with a chuckle.

Although he is still transitioning, Tang is seeking to impact Western through teaching and research. In August, the Association of Education in Journalism and Mass Communications awarded his presentation "Freedom of Information with Chinese Characteristics" the prize for "Best Poster Presentation" at its national conference in St. Louis.

"Could I become a businessman? I don't think so. I don't have any talent in money-making. Could I become a politician? I don't think so either. I love scholarship, I love research, so my goal is to become a professor in teaching journalism."

When he is not teaching, researching or reporting, Tang enjoys watching movies like "Terminator" and "Day After Tomorrow" and hiking with his 6-year-old son, George, and his wife, Catherine.

"I hardly have enough spare time," Tang joked. "I like hiking. This area has a lot of beautiful parks and hiking trails, so I often hike with my family. I think it's very relaxing. You can walk, and that's very good for my body physically."

Although Tang is just beginning his experience at Western, he will never forget the hunger that led him to begin his journey.

"I strongly believe in the power of education," Tang said. "I feel having a good education is the best way to a different life."

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