The English Language Institute (ELI) salutes a former student, George Dong, on his graduation from the University of Michigan and his accomplishment as 2009 undergraduate commencement speaker. (To see his speech, click on any of these links: University of Michigan website or Youtube). In a recent interview, George shared his story, which highlights the power of perseverance and of pursuing what we care most deeply about.

George says, “I’m not afraid of failures.” As he sees it, “failure makes me stronger, motivates me more.” Rather than give up in the face of rejection, he will ask what he needs to do to improve and then reapply. This approach has enabled him to do many things he is passionate about, such as serving as a Resident Advisor in a campus residence hall after he was rejected on his first two attempts, and participating in the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Finding Leaders Among Minorities Everywhere (FLAME) program after he had been turned down the previous year.

George calls Michigan “a wonderful school” because of the opportunities for learning and service that are available to students from different backgrounds. He has participated in many of them, such as The LeaderShape Institute, the New England Literature Program (NELP), and the Michigan in Washington (WIM) program. He notes that “not a lot of people take advantage” of these programs, perhaps because they think, “Oh, I’m not gonna get in.” Or, perhaps such programs threaten to push students outside their comfort zones. George’s life experiences, by contrast, pushed him out of his own comfort zone early on. As a result, he sees potential rejection from opportunities such as these as a minor risk, while not applying to do something he cares about would be a failure for sure.

George came to Ann Arbor from Fuzhou, China when he was 15. He spoke no English. In his first ever class at Ann Arbor Huron High School he did not understand a word the teacher said. The only class he was able to understand a little bit was his English as a Second Language (ESL) class, where he learned some grammar and spoke English with other students from countries around the world: Korea, Mexico, Niger, Switzerland, and Uzbekistan. These students became close friends because of all they had in common—language barriers, global perspectives and cultural differences. In his second year, George took on the further challenge of an English class that required him to read literature. To participate in this class, he prepared what he wanted to say in advance. 

While initially George hung out with other international students at Huron, he eventually joined the school basketball team, where he was “the only Asian player on the team.” He continued this pattern at the U of M, first becoming an active member of the United Asian American Organizations (UAAO) and Migrant and Immigrant Rights Awareness (MIRA) and then joining the Michigan chapter of the NAACP, where he was “the only non-black student in the club.” He points out how ethnic “pockets” are “really segregated” and says that in his life he wants to fight against that.

During his years at Michigan, George took ELI courses, for example working to improve his pronunciation. He also majored in English, which he called “a big moment for me.” Characteristically, he says that although he wasn’t good at it, “I took a shot; I had a lot of fun.” Moreover, he became a language teacher and mentor through participation in ELI 390, Community Service Learning in ESL Contexts, for which he worked with an English language learner at his former high school, and in ELI 994, the course for prospective LS&A GSIs, where he provided insights and feedback on practice teaching and classroom language use for graduate students. His involvement in these courses reflected his growing commitment to teaching.

Combining his passions for education and for connecting people across differences, George will soon be heading to Chicago in the Teach for America program, where he will teach at an inner city charter high school for economically disadvantaged African-American male students. He says, “Life is coming back full circle. I used to be the kid sitting in the back corner. Now I’ll be helping that kid.”