Hall of Fame honors ‘cultural guardian’

Multilingual professor comes full circle

Rancho Santa Fe resident Dr. Li-Rong Lilly Cheng is being inducted into the San Diego Women’s Hall of Fame for her life’s work as a “cultural guardian.”

The San Diego State University professor will be honored for her contributions to integrity of the Chinese community and for promoting multi-cultural bridges on March 28 at UC San Diego’s Price Center. She’ll join San Diego’s first female physician, a Vietnam veteran and a champion sprinter as well as other honorees.

A specialist in communicative disorders and speech pathologist, Cheng is a professor in the School of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences as well as the executive director of the school’s Chinese Study Institute. She is also the managing director of the new

Confucius Institute, a Chinese-language learning facility for all ages that is set to open on March 26.

Cheng said she places a special emphasis on children - in not leaving any of them behind and in giving them the opportunities to experience different languages and cultures. Not only does it promote literacy and critical thinking, Cheng said, it also teaches a respect for differences.

“It’s very important to send the message about investing in all of our children across the globe to develop a sense of respect and ultimately peace,” she said.

Life-long learner

Cheng grew up an island girl in Taiwan, coming to America in 1968 at age 20 to study at Southern Illinois University. Cheng recalls being puzzled not only by the culture shock of a lack of tofu and whole fish but also by the language.

In traveling the country, Cheng said she was amazed by all the different, accented ways people spoke the language, from the Midwest to Manhattan. Seeing those differences was what got her interested in studying language’s relationship with its surrounding culture.

After receiving her master’s in linguistics, she went on to Michigan State University for her doctorate and speech pathology degree.

Her studies took her to Quebec, where she took French classes from a teacher who would only teach the language in a French restaurant because she said culture was so important in learning the language.

“In Paris, money and position means nothing,” said Cheng. “Being able to drink coffee and have baguette means everything.

Cheng and her husband came to San Diego in the 1980s - she worked as a speech pathologist at local hospitals before joining the SDSU faculty in 1984.

Writing is a passion

Cheng said she delights in storytelling and writing. She has authored more than 12 books and several professional articles in both Chinese and English.

After attending the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, she wrote a book called “Her Story” in Chinese about renaissance women like Eleanor Roosevelt, Toni Morrison, Hilary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher.

In 2008, colleagues honored Cheng for an article in “Communications Disorders Quarterly” on the Virginia Tech shootings. She looked at the massacre from a speech pathology perspective, studying how the young man responsible had a disorder that was perhaps mismanaged.

Being noticed by her colleagues for an article written in her second language was an incredible gift, she said, only second to the Women’s Hall of Fame honor.

She said that after a lifelong struggle to learn the English language, she feels she has come full circle.