This Saturday I’ll be privileged to escort Feifei Zeng, a senior maid in Mississippi State’s 2016 Homecoming court, onto Scott Field. Many of you have asked how Feifei came to be part of Chellie’s and my world. Well, let me tell you.
Feifei Zeng was lost the afternoon she wandered into my life in August 2014.
MSU’s public affairs team was shooting a video with a script that called for someone looking lost and lonely on the first day of class. With eyes glancing up from the map in her hands for the names of the buildings around her, this petite Asian student more than fit the bill.
“Want to be in a video?” I asked, interrupting her journey in front of MSU’s Lee Hall.
“What would I need to do?” she answered, looking in the direction of our makeshift set near the Union.
“Exactly what you’re doing now,” I said.
Sensing her hesitancy, I mentioned that the gig came with free ice cream and suddenly we had ourselves a deal. We shot the piece and moved on with little engagement with our cast to the next project as we usually do. Roughly two weeks later, I was walking in front of the campus Post Office when the same girl with the same map bounded up the steps in front of me.
“Hey!” I said. “You’re the girl from our video.”
Taking a moment to recognize me, her head began bouncing up and down supported by a happy flow of, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
“I’m Feifei,” she said, sticking out her hand and in the same breath, “Can you tell how to find the shuttle that goes to the research park?” Not being one for directions either, I invited her to my office where several of us looked up MSU’s shuttle routes on a computer. As she was running out the door to catch her ride, I offered my business card, suggesting that she contact me if she needed more help.
That afternoon, I received the nicest email. Feifei had made it to her interview in the nick of time and wanted to thank me for my assistance. No worries, I assured her. And as I do with many students, I mentioned that my wife Chellie and I teach in the college class at our church and that we’d love for her to visit some time.
She said she was free that Sunday, noting that she had no car nor could she drive. So I offered to pick her up, beginning a ritual that has continued most every Sunday morning for the past two years.
Our family’s relationship with Feifei didn’t stop with church, though. We included the feisty international student so far from her home in Sunday dinners, invited her to our birthday celebrations, fulfilled her dream to see an NBA game, and introduced her to a true redneck Thanksgiving. She was one of us from the start, even posing in the family photo for our annual Christmas card.
Sometimes being with Feifei required work and patience, especially from Chellie. Shopping sprees. Grocery runs. Trips to and from the Memphis airport. Storage space for the summer. A home at Christmas. And comfort during the usual meltdowns that every college student experiences.
But in return, the blessings have all been ours. That’s because we get to be part of Feifei’s incredible story. A story that began in China, when her mother won out over her grandmother’s desire to dispose of her at birth because she was too small and a girl at that. One in which her early years were spent in a tiny, one-room house where the family took showers by pouring water over themselves from pots filled in the kitchen sink. A tale that began in a place where freedom and opportunity were not only scarce but often unobtainable.
When Feifei was five, her dad defected to Italy where he worked until there was enough money to reunite the family six years later. As a Chinese immigrant, Feifei experienced new challenges in Italy. Barely 11 years old, she quickly noticed the differences in her looks, language and customs. Thankfully, several of her teachers took interest, recognizing her talents and a remarkable gift in learning languages. Encouraged to learn Italian and English, Feifei became her principal’s official translator for Chinese parents experiencing difficulty with school expectations.
She could certainly identify with the language barrier. As a new student, Feifei’s teacher explained that children unable to pay for a meal in the cafeteria were required to go home for lunch. Unable to translate the instructions, Feifei thought she was being sent home for good.
Extra effort and perseverance were part of Feifei’s story from the beginning. At 17, she began researching the possibilities of becoming an American exchange student. She and her parents took on extra jobs to earn the money, often working late at night to ensure a brighter future.
After several tries, Feifei was accepted to an exchange program at Southside High School in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where she lived with the women’s basketball coach and family. The relationship sparked a love for basketball in Feifei that earned her a position as manager on the team – all 4 feet 10 inches of her. She soon won the hearts of Arkansans, impressing school officials who took action to get her accepted in a community college in nearby Oklahoma.
At Carl Albert State College, Feifei excelled in the classroom while working to pay for her education as a resident assistant and helper in the campus cafeteria. Of significance was her induction into Phi Theta Kappa, a national honor society for which she was elected president during her freshman year. The role earned her an expense-paid trip to the organization’s national convention in San Diego, California, beginning a journey that would eventually lead her to us.
Also attending that convention was Lynn Russell, Mississippi State’s admissions recruiter who was attending her first-ever Phi Theta Kappa convention college fair. Lynn met Feifei and Feifei met MSU. After a few campus visits elsewhere, Feifei boarded a Greyhound bus in Oklahoma bound for Jackson, Mississippi, where she was met in the early hours of the morning by a Phi Theta Kappa representative and offered breakfast before heading to Starkville. I don’t know if it was love at first sight, but I am confident that the scholarship offers and the PTK relationship at MSU sealed the deal for Feifei to become a Bulldog in 2014.
In the two years since her arrival, we have applauded Feifei many times. As an international business major in the College of Business, she is learning a fourth language while participating in as many activities as her schedule allows. Consider her selection to two leadership classes taught by MSU President Mark Keenum and his wife Rhonda, MSU Foundation Ambassadors, Montgomery Leadership Program, International Business Society, Financial Management Association, Shackouls Honors College’s Honors Council and study abroad opportunities through Cornell University. She has represented MSU at conferences at Harvard University and in Beijing, Silicon Valley; Baltimore and Italy – all funded through scholarships fueled by a resume that’s clearly off the charts. In addition, she works 20 hours a week in the College of Arts and Sciences dean’s office and the College of Business Entrepreneurship Center.
If it takes a village, then Feifei has a metropolis. So many in this community of educators and professionals love her. And does she ever love back – from dog sitting to cat sitting to housesitting to babysitting. If you know her, these might be the only times “sitting” can be used to refer to anything about her. She is in constant motion.
Last spring, an internship with International Paper placed her in Memphis with very little advance notice. Where would she live? How would she get back and forth to work? God loves His child even more than we do. Special friends Mike and Dawn Weaver reached out to her, offering a rented room while loving her like family. The unbelievable part is their home is a few doors down the street from our daughter and son-in-law, Sara and David Adams. That made it possible for Feifei to ride to and from work each day with David while her relationship with Sara strengthened. Hannah Grace, our grandchild, believed that little Feifei was her very own playmate.
Back on campus this semester, Feifei is hard at it – handling 23 academic hours, managing the requirements of her part-time job and pursuing new learning opportunities for next summer. She even pitched an idea to the College of Business advisory board for donations that sent her back to Harvard during fall break along with 15 other MSU students for the Intercollegiate Business Convention.
Last Tuesday night, Chellie and I joined dozens of students in front of the Union to learn the outcome of this year’s Homecoming elections. Feifei was a candidate for senior maid and we wanted to be there to celebrate if she won; to console if she lost. The freshmen names were read first; then the sophomores and the juniors. From our vantage point on the edge of the crowd, we waited eagerly to hear the results of the next category. Then came the announcement. Feifei Zeng will represent her senior class.
In the middle of the pack, we spotted our little friend jumping up and down high above the others. We cheered. We laughed. And maybe even cried just a little. As we watched, I thought, what a great place this is – with a culture so rich and diverse that it selects an Asian student whom no one even knew two years ago to its Homecoming court. In the corner of my eye, I spotted Feifei running toward us – first hugging Chellie and then me. Smiling like no other time since I’ve known her, she looked up and shouted, “Will you walk me down the aisle?”
“Down the aisle?” I questioned with a laugh.
“Oh Mr. Checky,” she scolded. “On the field … at Homecoming. You know what I mean.”
“Of course,” I said. “I’d be honored.”
So Homecoming is turning out to be a whirlwind week. The trip we had planned is cancelled. Chellie’s a full-time mom again. There’s a dress to be altered. Outfits to be purchased. Rehearsals to be made. And the manicure and the shoes and the makeup.
And what an amazing outpouring of love from MSU and PTK folks and friends and families desiring to be part of the journey. There is no way the Herringtons could do this alone. Many have stepped in with everything from cash gifts to service gifts to clothing – some helping find formal shoes in size 3 children; others sharing or shipping jewelry from several states away. The names and numbers are rising. Feifei asked Chellie the other day how we were doing on the budget and her response was “God is providing.” Providing indeed. Exceeding above and beyond all we could imagine.
Getting out of my car one morning this week, I was stopped by George Dunn, one of the chosen ones who has shepherded Feifei through Honors College.
“Heard you’re escorting Feifei at Homecoming. That’s awesome,” he said. “But while you’re escorting her on the field, never forget this – Feifei belongs to all of us. She’s everything Mississippi State stands for.”
I’ll be thinking about that as I escort her on Saturday. About how Feifei really owns a piece of all of our hearts. About how fortunate we are to be part of her amazing story. I’ll be thinking about that lost and lonely transfer student roaming campus just two years ago with a map in her hands and questions in her eyes. About how her journey has led her to the center of that field, representing her class and university.
And it will be clear that not only has she found her way; she’s found her place. And how much better that place is now – as are we – because of it.