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A change of destiny for one alumna

Helen Hwang came to study at the University of St Andrews in 1986 as part of a Junior Year Abroad (JYA) while she was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. When her daughter decided to attend a summer programme here in June 2019, Helen took the opportunity to come back for a mothers’ and daughters’ reunion with Caroline Jeffs (BSc 1990) – the roommate with whom she has kept in touch for 33 years.

During her visit, Helen kindly agreed to talk to Lynsey Kerr and Sue Hill from the Development team about how she literally discovered her destiny in St Andrews, and why it will always be a very special place.

Why St Andrews?
I would never have heard about St Andrews if it hadn’t been for my Reverend. Because he had graduated from the University, he would talk in his Sunday sermons about what a wonderful place St Andrews was and what he had done while he was studying here. I loved hearing these stories so much I decided that I wanted to experience it also. I applied and thankfully got in. The University, including the Chapel I had heard so much about in sermons, was everything that I had hoped for, and more. That’s how I came to St Andrews University!

St Salvator’s Chapel

I have so many wonderful memories, but if I had to choose only one – and it’s not a memory, because it’s still very much in the present – it would be the lifelong friendship with my roommate Caroline Jeffs. We’ve been keeping in touch for 33 years. Caroline (who’s now living in England) hadn’t returned to St Andrews since we graduated, so when she knew I was visiting she decided to come up for the weekend with her daughters. My daughter was also with me, so we had a wonderful mothers’ and daughters’ reunion.

Roommates during University

Helen and her roommate Caroline – back 33 years later in St Andrews!

The other abiding memory I have is of the Chapel Service and the Pier Walk afterwards. It’s a special place – not just because of its history. Whenever I return here, I am spiritually refreshed, and that’s very special.

The Pier Walk after Chapel Service

Also, the classes were amazing, with very different teaching styles to those in America. Here, it was the idea of learning with excellence for the true sake of learning that inspired and motivated me. This is another outstanding memory of my time at St Andrews.

Then of course there was the Burns’ night in our Hall, the Megabop, afternoon tea with friends, all-nighters before exam time … And Raisin Weekend! And also the Hall and Student Union Balls! So many wonderful memories!

Raisin Monday


Student Union Ball

A change of destiny …
We have a tradition of medical doctors in our family, going back for more than a century: my great-great-aunt studied in Baltimore, Maryland at Johns Hopkins University in the late nineteenth century. Upon graduating, she went back to her own home country to become the first woman doctor to practise Western medicine there. My mom and dad are both medical doctors and expected me to become a doctor, too. I was their last hope, because my brother had chosen a different field of study! When I started my first year at the University of Virginia, I also thought I wanted to be a doctor.

However, when I came to St Andrews and discovered a new and more independent way of thinking and learning, it changed my destiny. I took Management Studies, Divinity and Spanish, which had absolutely nothing to do with science or medicine, but which I thoroughly enjoyed! My grades confirmed that I should pursue the business world, and I went back to my home university knowing what I wanted to do.

I had to break the news to my parents. They were a little bit shocked at first, but in the end they accepted and supported my choice. (Thankfully, my nephew is now in medical school to continue the family tradition.) I pursued an Economics Bachelors degree and went onto complete my Masters degree in Foreign Affairs. After my first professional work experience at the World Bank, I was very lucky to be nominated for and passed the assessment of a programme called the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) – a special two-year US Government fast-track programme first established during the Kennedy presidency. Fellows do rotations and are given special training opportunities and groomed with long-term aspirations of becoming future leaders in the US Federal Government.

Through the PMF programme, I eventually became a Desk Officer at the US Department of Commerce and, partly because of my Spanish and Latin American studies at St Andrews, I worked on trade negotiations, regulatory issues and trade promotions covering countries in Latin America. It was my experience at St Andrews that revealed this career path to me in international trade and commerce.

After this, I decided to take the Foreign Commercial Service exam. I passed and was then assigned to Korea for my first tour of duty. My career as a US diplomat took off from there. One of my humblest moments was working at the American Embassy in London during the time of 9/11 when I witnessed Americans and Britons working together, shoulder to shoulder, during and after the crisis. As the Director of the International Marketing Center at the time, I had the pleasure of coordinating business-related events at Winfield House – the American Ambassador’s Residence – for commercially-related delegations from the US. I had a wonderful team of British colleagues, and it was again my experience of meeting so many people from different countries and walks of life at St Andrews that gave me the experience and skills to work with and lead the British team successfully.

Christmas time at the American Embassy in London

After London I went back to the US Embassy in Korea in the Commercial Section working in a Chief of Operations and Staff capacity,

Trade exhibition in Seoul, supporting former US Ambassador to Korea Kathleen Stephens
Empowerment remarks on Women Government Leadership at Ewha Womans University, Seoul, Korea
Award ceremony at the US Embassy in Seoul, presented by former US Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez

and then went on to be Head of the large Commercial Section at the American Institute in Taiwan, which was an incredible experience.

US pavilion ribbon cutting ceremony at a trade exhibition in Taipei, Taiwan
Business luncheon in Taipei, Taiwan
Travel and tourism trade show in Taipei, Taiwan

My most recent diplomatic tour was at the US Consulate General in Osaka-Kobe in Japan, heading up the commercial team and also taking on the Consul General acting role for extended periods of time.

A trade and investment cooperation signing ceremony in Kobe, Japan

American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, Kansai Chapter award ceremony
Fireside chat with university students at the US Consulate General Osaka-Kobe, Japan


Opening day at the New York Fair at a major department store in Osaka, Japan
Opening day at the New York Fair at a major department store in Osaka, Japan

Back at headquarters, I was the Director of Select USA Investment Services, which supports international investment promotion into the US. And now, after more than 25 years as a public servant working in the diplomatic world of international trade and investment, I decided to retire early to spend more time with my family, and settle back in America in my hometown.

Retirement ceremony held at the US Department of Commerce, Washington, D.C.

And to think that all of this has resulted from my being at St Andrews – it all started here!

St Andrews (Old Course)

What my career has taught me

Do your best – work hard, because nothing in life is easy. You can be very intelligent and not work, which is such a waste of talent. I wasn’t a genius, but I worked hard upholding Christian values of honesty and integrity, respecting people from all walks of life regardless of station, taking care of and standing up for my team members, leading by example and persevering. That’s what matters – that’s a true test of character.

I have never been competitive with others by nature; I strove only to compete with myself, to always do my best and lead for my team and for my country. This is congruent with the St Andrews motto, Αἰὲν ἀριστεύειν; (Aien aristeuein), “Ever to be the Best.” These values are built into the University of St Andrews’ culture so that future generations will also have the opportunity to carry them onward. Stay true to these values. And also have fun, enjoy friendships! Spend quality time with family and friends. Enjoy the little things in life.

Lecture to university students

Reception for student interns and mentees

On being an active St Andrews alumni – a call to action
I think it’s so important for alumni to continue to stay involved. As I get older, friendships become more and more meaningful, to the extent that when I was waiting on the platform at Leuchars station for Caroline – my roommate – to arrive, I got quite choked up. Perhaps other alumni might also want to think about reaching out to friends they haven’t seen in decades and reconnect, too. The University of St Andrews is the strong bond that holds us together.

There are many ways that we, as alumni, can ensure that the University continues to thrive and continues to nurture the next generation of graduates, who make meaningful contributions to better this world. Whether you make an active effort to reconnect with your long-lost friends from your University years, attend a St Andrews event hosted by your nearest local Alumni Club, reach out to the University Development team, mentor a St Andrews University student, recruit a University graduate for your workforce, make a financial contribution to the University in gratitude, or attend your next special St Andrews University reunion − stay actively engaged!

The Next Generation making strides towards St Andrews and a better future

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One reply to "A change of destiny for one alumna"

  1. Dear Ms. Hwang,
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your story. It is truly inspiring and it solidifies my reason of wanting to study at St Andrews University. Thank you for sharing and many blessings and guidance on your journey.

    Yours Sincerely,
    Colleen Cohen

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