Meet ESU Kansas City's newest member, Bambi Shen. The harrowing life story of Bambi stretches across cultures and continents.
Daughter of a Chinese diplomat, Shen was born in French Indochina (now Vietnam). For much of Shen's young life, her mother berated her and repeatedly told her how she wished she'd been born a boy. When Japan took over Vietnam, she and her family endured internment in concentration camps, surviving hunger and bombing air raids, which twice came precariously close to taking her life.
In the U.S. she continued to face major challenges, including discrimination for her ethnicity and a near-crippling injury in college, but her personal determination and love of learning compelled her forward. "I was determined to make it in the U.S." she said. "At that point, it was sink or swim. I chose to swim and 'find the gate in every wall.' "
Shen persevered and sought out an education, traveling alone to the United States on a scholarship to attend a college in Kentucky then moving to Tennessee and earned a bachelor's degree from Siena College. Her academic pursuits eventually led to Kansas City where she earned a Master's Degree (M.A. '76) in French language and literature from UMKC, where she also taught French.
In spite of a lack of family support and obstacles created by gender, ethnicity and culture, Shen triumphed as an educator who is fluent in French, English, Mandarin and Cantonese and conversant in Spanish. She is a businesswoman, mother, wife, author, philanthropist, a former restaurateur, an inspiration to women and a mentor to international students. She is a frequent speaker at battered women's shelters, sororities and college campuses. In 2011 she published her memoir, The Uncrushable Rose: A Memoir from Concentration Camp to Becoming a Free Woman,
The title of her book comes from a lesson she learned from her father. In one of the maximum security concentration camps where her family was imprisoned, he planted two rosebushes.
"As I watched him plant them, he gave me the most important lesson in my life," Shen said. "He said to me, 'These rosebushes are also in the concentration camp, but it makes no difference to them, their nature is to bloom, and they would do so no matter where they are planted. We must learn from them. We must not allow our outer circumstances to keep us from being what we were born to be. So learn to bloom wherever you are planted, or even transplanted.' "
Shen is a member of the Edgar Snow Memorial Foundation Board and co-founder of Homes from the Heart, an Overland Park-based organization that provides homes for those in need in El Salvador, Haiti, Guatemala and Nicaragua. She also works as a French, Mandarin and Cantonese medical interpreter in area hospitals.
Throughout her challenging and extraordinary life, Bambi Nancy Shen has followed her personal mantra: "Have courage to take action and practice kindness to others."
She encourages students and others, "Don't take any harsh words too personally. Let other people's judgments roll off your back. Shake them off the way a duck shakes off water after a swim. To put it simply, be like a duck."
Each year, the UMKC Alumni Association presents alumni awards to one honoree from each school and five campus-wide awards at its annual awards luncheon. Bambi's perseverance and spirit made her a natural choice for the "Defying the Odds" Alumni Award presented to her in April of this year.
The ESU Kansas City Branch warmly welcomes Bambi to the ESU and we hope to see her at our programs and events throughout the year and, perhaps hear her story, first-hand, at one of our events.