She came from a poor family in rural Malaysia that often struggled to put food on the table.
Her parents divorced when she was 2, and she was raised by a grandmother who had no formal education.
When she did persevere to pursue a college education more than 9,000 miles from home at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, an economic recession in her homeland in 1998 resulted in the suspension of her scholarship. A divorced and single mother at the time, she worked for a year as a full-time custodian at SIU to finance her education and support her young son.
Faridah Awang could have become just another statistic, relegated to the margins of society, but for the vision of that grandmother who nonetheless prized education and for the photographs on the free calendars that adorned the walls of their modest home in Endau, Johor.
Perhaps it was those calendar scenes from all around the world that permeated Awang’s childhood home with a distinct sense of hope. Awang remembers learning that her first name meant, in a word, “exceptional,” and her grandmother’s vision that “one day, I would make a name for myself in a foreign land.”
The grandmother’s dream came true. Today, Dr. Faridah Awang is an award-winning professor of corporate communications and technology at Eastern Kentucky University and the first Malaysian-American to earn a full professorship in her academic field in the U.S. An autobiography about her life is a big hit back in Malaysia, where Awang is a regular guest on radio and television talk shows, and plans are underway to produce a movie based on her life.
Awang’s grandmother worked as a midwife and sold homemade herbal medicines. Still, it was something of a treat when the household – which also consisted of an older brother and cousin – could enjoy nothing more than thin rice porridge. “Mostly, we didn’t eat,” she recalled.
But that didn’t stop Awang from becoming a ravenous learner who represented her schools in regional, state and national debates and lectures, and participated in sports and student organizations. After earning a college degree in Malaysia, she taught for a time at the University of Technology Malaysia before earning bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at Southern Illinois.
The master’s degree almost didn’t happen. Short of funds, Awang faced the prospect of curtailing her dream when an SIU faculty member came to the rescue. Knowing her work ethic and sensing the enormous potential in Awang, Business Education Professor Dr. Marcia Anderson funded the final semester of her student’s master’s degree and helped her find funding for her doctoral degree.
“She was the most diligent, productive, focused and intelligent student with whom I have had the honor of knowing and teaching,” Anderson said of Awang. “I especially remember her as a single mother during those years with negligible financial resources, and her son would come to night class with her. He would do his homework or read outside the classroom, and we would chat with him during breaks “
Awang proved she was worthy of her mentor’s confidence, winning the Outstanding Master’s Thesis and the Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation research awards in 1998 and 2002, respectively, as well as the national Delta Pi Epsilon research award in 2002. It was the first time that a Malaysian-American had won the awards.
“She has gone on to become a well-respected business education professor and national leader in various business professional associations,” Anderson beamed.
Awang joined the EKU faculty in 2002 and was soon winning awards on the Richmond campus, including the Jack L. Dyer Excellence in Teaching Award in 2011 and a Critical Thinking Teacher of the Year honor in 2015. Awang has held various leadership positions, including president, of the Association for Business Communication, Southwest U.S. Region, and co-chaired the 2011 Association for Business Communication International Convention in Montreal, Canada.
EKU colleague Dr. Lana Carnes called Awang “a student-centered professor who has devoted her career to helping students succeed, a consummate professional and a much emulated role model for students and faculty alike. Perhaps because of obstacles and challenges in her life, she has developed a strength that I find admirable. This strength manifests itself in a strong work ethic, an undeniable moral compass, and a passion for living life to the fullest.”
Back home in Malaysia, Awang was selected as the Distinguished Scholar for her first International Education Forum. More than 100 educators, academic administrators and working professionals participated with the Malaysian Minister of Higher Education in launching the event.
The autobiography, “Musafir Cinta 4 Musim,” which is not yet available in English but translates as “A Journey into a Four-Season Land,” sold more than 2,000 copies in its first week of release this summer and continues to fare well.
“I thought I could share my story and let others know it’s going to be OK,” Awang said.
Her son, Hafiz, who was only 5 when his mother arrived in the U.S. and watched as she struggled to realize her dream and set a positive example, went on to graduate from Model Laboratory High School, recently finished his MBA in marketing and business intelligence at Xavier University and is enjoying a successful career with Verizon Communications.
Looking back at her amazing and often difficult journey, Awang “wouldn’t change a thing. To be successful,” she explained, “you have to grow through tests. You have to be uncomfortable. Many times we become victims of our environment, and we let that dictate our life. You have to rise above that emotion. Life is not easy, but don’t let one part of your life ruin you.”
Like her grandmother once told her, “When you love someone, that person may leave you, but when you love education, that will last forever.”