University President, John Garvey, reviews:
Working for a Better World, by Dr. Carolyn Woo
“God has not called me to be successful,” Mother Teresa once said. “He has called me to be faithful.” It’s a good reminder that we ought not be so focused on worldly goals that we lose sight of our ultimate purpose. But it’s also worth remembering that Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who will be canonized a saint this fall, was also remarkably successful.
This came to my mind as I was reading Working for a Better World by Dr. Carolyn Woo. Woo is President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the official international humanitarian agency of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. She is also a member of Catholic University’s board of trustees. And next week she will receive the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Study’s Keane Medallion for her service to the academy, our country, and the Church. In Working for a Better World, she tells the story of her journey from Hong Kong to the United States to becoming president of CRF.
Woo was born and raised in Hong Kong and was educated by the Maryknoll Sisters. The sisters had left their homes and their families in the United States to teach in Hong Kong. Through their example of joy and courage, Woo “came to believe that God makes promises and keeps them.”
Woo planned to pursue professional studies in the United States after high school. She knew she wanted to be able to care for her parents and her nanny in their old age. She decided on Purdue University after a chance meeting with an economics professor from the university and came to the United States with just enough money for one year of tuition and no return ticket home. Her entire family and her nanny contributed to pay for her tuition. At the end of her first year Woo signed up for a second year of classes, even though she had no funds to pay for it. She applied for one of the two full scholarships offered for international students and got it. Woo received her bachelors, masters, and Ph.D. at Purdue. She met her husband there, joined the faculty, and served as an administrator at Purdue for more than a decade before becoming the dean of the University of Notre Dame’s College of Business Administration. (I was fortunate to know Dr. Woo at Notre Dame where we were colleagues.)
“Without any idea of how I could pull this off,” Woo says of her college aspirations, “I proceeded anyway.” Many of the stories Woo tells in Working for a Better a World have a similar theme. God said, “go,” and Woo, despite fears and obstacles, went, trusting that God makes promises and keeps them.
There is a second theme in Woo’s story. Success and excellence are things to strive for. When Woo bombed the SAT verbal section, she studied harder and took the test again. When she arrived at Purdue, she loaded up on extra courses to make the most of her time there.
The importance of excellence is particularly clear in Woo’s description of her work for Catholic Relief Services. Compassion for the poor, Woo recognized, is not enough. “Desire to work for the common good must be accompanied by uncommon excellence that achieves demonstrable, sustainable, and holistic improvements for individuals, families, and communities.” CRS, for example, responds to the destruction caused by natural disasters like Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines in November 2013. They provided tarps, food, and water. But they also plan ahead of disasters to reduce the risk of destruction. They built homes in the Philippines capable of withstanding typhoon winds and heavy flooding. CRS provides food to the hungry, but they also work with farmers to improve planting and growing strategies. They help establish savings clubs in poor communities that give their members access to the capital necessary to start a business or recover from a setback.
The two themes of Woo’s story go hand in hand. There is no necessary conflict between success and faithfulness. They are complementary. Success can be the way in which we are faithful to God’s call.