Victor Chan-Cheng Chang enjoyed a successful, decades-long career in finance after graduating from the University of Michigan in 1944 with a master of arts in economics.
He dedicated more than 30 years of his career to the World Bank, where he retired from the positions of deputy controller and head of the accounting department in 1983. After decades of living a post-retirement life, in December 2018, Chang died peacefully at home in Maryland, only a month and five days shy of becoming a centenarian.
Chang’s life would have looked much different without the support and advocacy of the University of Michigan’s International Center staff decades earlier, said Victor Zhang, Chang’s nephew.
“My uncle mentioned many times his deep appreciation for the International Center and for arranging for the treatment and recovery of his early-stage tuberculosis,” Zhang said.
Zhang donated $10,000 to the International Center to support its student emergency efforts to honor his uncle’s wishes and as a tribute to him. The International Center Emergency Fund provides U-M’s international community with financial support for unusual and unforeseen emergency expenses, such as the abrupt academic disruption Chang experienced.
A University of Michigan education, disrupted
During Chang’s time in Ann Arbor in the 1940s, the International Center played a central, supporting role in his graduate student experience.
Chang was active in what was known as the Chinese Students’ Club, elected treasurer at least twice by his peers, according to correspondence with the association’s outgoing president. He would later become the club’s president.
In spring 1944, Chang was nearing graduation when illness struck, and he was diagnosed with early-stage tuberculosis. The disease usually affects the lungs, though TB can also affect other body parts such as the brain, kidneys or spine.
Spread from person to person through the air, TB can be transmitted when a person with TB coughs or sneezes and those nearby inhale the droplets. Today, active TB can almost always be cured with antibiotics. Treatment options in 1944, when Chang contracted the disease, looked drastically different.
As an international student, Chang faced additional complications. World War II cut off his access to financial support from his family in China. Chang’s March 1942 Michigan Daily profile noted he picked up a job as a busboy in a local restaurant to offset his lost financial flow. By spring 1944, he would be unable to work while he was quarantined during his TB treatment, applying further financial pressures on his situation.
Chang was alone. Or so he thought.
The International Center provided Chang with a range of support following his diagnosis, from arranging his treatment at the Trudeau Sanatorium, located on the shores of Saranac Lake in upstate New York, to the center’s staff writing Chang letters that shared snippets of campus life and hopes that he would soon be back in Ann Arbor.
While cleaning his uncle’s home after his death, Zhang found letters from the International Center that his uncle had kept. In one dated March 8, 1944, a center assistant counselor told Chang: “The initial few days may be ones when you are looking back to Ann Arbor rather than looking forward to when you can return to Ann Arbor fit and well. I hope that time will not be too long.”
The center covered Chang’s medical bills, allowing him to focus on regaining his health so he could rejoin the U-M campus community in Ann Arbor.
In another correspondence from late April 1944, the same International Center staff member shared their elation that Chang’s TB had become inactive, noting that “it is certainly grand to know that you may be back with us well and happy again.”
Zhang said his uncle would go on to spend more than 70 years working and living in Washington, D.C. “He knew any street better than the GPS,” Zhang said with a chuckle.
Under the International Center’s cool shade
Unlike his uncle, Zhang could not rely on an innate GPS-like sense of direction to navigate Ann Arbor.
In October 2022, during Ann Arbor’s first snowfall of the season, Zhang and his wife were less than 24 hours into a whirlwind trip to see the city and campus his uncle called home during his graduate studies.
Among Zhang’s most anticipated stops: the International Center, where he would meet-and thank-the International Center’s current staff for continuing the work that helped his uncle decades ago. It’s where Zhang would thank International Center Director Judith Pennywell for “accomplishing this donation in the way (his uncle, Victor Chang) wanted to do it.”
Zhang recalled his uncle mentioning many times how much he appreciated the center’s support during his treatment and that Chang often talked of his desire to donate to the International Center.
As he and his wife sat in Pennywell’s office, Zhang shared the English translation of a Chinese proverb to explain his connection to his uncle and his family’s gratitude to the International Center: “Descendants enjoy the cool shade of the trees planted by their ancestors (前人栽树后人乘凉).”
“For our family, one of the beneficiaries of the International Center almost 80 years ago, we’re all very grateful and have come to say thank you,” Zhang said.
His uncle provided the cool shade that helped him continue his education, similar to how the International Center provided Chang support during his time of need.
“My uncle was the sponsor of my graduate study, which was very important because I was an international student myself 30 years ago,” Zhang said. “He also gave my family and son lots of valuable guidance and support for all these years. My uncle was there every step of the way.”
Support for a new generation
Those under the cool shade of Chang’s care and support are growing beyond his family, following the $10,000 donation his nephew made in his honor. The funds are now helping a new generation of international Wolverines navigate unexpected challenges and disruptions to their health and education.
“Many international students at U-M face challenges that come out of the blue. The floods in Pakistan. The war in Ukraine. The students impacted by these events are a few examples of the students we support through the International Center Emergency Fund,” Pennywell said. “We are honored to be a recipient of this gift.”
Established in 1938, the U-M International Center is among the oldest offices dedicated to advising and supporting international students, scholars and employees within the Big Ten Conference.
It’s no small task. In the fall 2022 term, U-M enrolled 8,861 international students (17% of the entire student population) from 124 countries. Of those students, more than 4,300 are citizens of the People’s Republic of China-no country had more citizens studying at U-M. It’s also the country where Chang’s life began; he was born Jan. 10, 1919, in Beijing.
Now, more than a century has passed since Chang’s birth, only a handful of years since his death in 2018. The same challenges facing U-M’s international students have shifted some since Chang was a student.
What has stayed the same is the International Center’s devotion to caring and supporting U-M’s international campus community. “Please continue to write us and I am sure that someone in the office will always be ready to write you about what is happening here,” an International Center counselor wrote to Chang as he recovered from TB in New York.
When a member of U-M’s international community calls-or emails, writes or any other form of communication-for support, the International Center’s mission remains to answer.