Sharing the Fruits of a Dream
It was only when she began teaching immigration law this fall as an adjunct professor at Case Western Reserve University, says Margaret W. Wong '76, that she realized what a high—wire act it is to hold your own before a classroom full of bright law students.
So, says Margaret, who has spent a career building her Cleveland-based practice into an immigration law powerhouse, she called on SUNY Buffalo Law School for advice. She emailed associate professor Rick Su, whose teaching and research includes work in immigration law, with a rookie question: "How do you talk for two hours?"
Rick provided a little coaching, and now— "every Tuesday at 6 o'clock"—she finds herself imparting the lessons of her fruitful career to the next generation of would-be immigration lawyers.
Margaret's personal journey is as well-known at SUNY Buffalo Law School as it is in Cleveland. Born in Hong Kong, where her parents had fled following the Communist takeover of China, she became an immigrant herself, coming to the United States on a student visa along with her younger sister, Cecilia. Between them they had four suitcases and $200.
Margaret's rags-to-riches story began when she worked her way through college in Iowa and then Illinois as a waitress (though, she lost jobs because she couldn't tell a Rob Roy from a Manhattan or from a martini), and spent summers doing hotel work in New York's Catskills resorts. A full scholarship to SUNY Buffalo Law School, she says, made her dream of becoming a lawyer possible.
Making Her Own Opportunities
She passed the bar but could not find a job in law. She worked a temporary position as a legal and financial officer for the City of Buffalo, then moved to Cleveland to become a management trainee at a bank there. After a brief stint at a Cleveland law firm, she struck out on her own with a $25 desk and didn't even have a secretary.
She called everyone she knew and handed out her business card on buses. Slowly the business built up to the point a few years ago when Wong moved it into a beautiful new building on downtown Chester Street and christened it the MWW Center. Margaret Wong & Associates now has additional offices in Chicago, New York City, Columbus, Atlanta and Detroit, serving both individual and corporate clients throughout the United States.
She and her husband, pharmacist Kam Chan, have two children, including daughter Allison Chan, a 2011 graduate of UB Law School.
"It is my firm belief that the United States in still the best country in which to live, thrive, and become somebody," she writes in her book The Immigrant's Way. "I am living the American dream. ... Most foreign-borns in the United States are tenacious survivors. We work hard to save and to bring our families to America to enjoy a better life-in living standards, personal freedoms, and environmental conditions. We also tend to be stoic, do not voice our opinions often, and are more generally accepting and accommodating to the not-so-great things that happen to us or around us, while being thankful for the good things that do happen."
Wong makes the three-hour drive from Cleveland for meetings of SUNY Buffalo Law School's Dean's Advisory Council, of which she has been a member since 2006. The Law School has recognized her extraordinary level of involvement with her alma mater by presenting her with the Distinguished Alumna Award for private practice in 2007.
That involvement has extended to substantial financial support of the Law School. This year Margaret has increased her previous commitment of $850,000 by an additional $650,000. That $1.5 million endowment will be divided: half for scholarships, half to establish a professorship in immigration law.
The scholarship support, she says, is partly intended to advance the school's efforts to attract the very best students regardless of financial need. "We're trying to get really top-rate students," she says, "and it's nice to be wanted. For many of these top-tier students, three schools will accept them, and the decision comes down to which they can afford financially."
The ability to offer significant scholarship money, she says, means SUNY Buffalo Law can enroll students of the highest caliber, thereby enhancing the educational experience for all the school's stakeholders while also helping the school's reputation and rankings.
But also, Margaret says, her scholarship giving recognizes the help she herself received all those years ago. "It really did some good for me," she says of that assistance. "I went most of three years for free. I thought it would be neat to plan such a gift and see some kids enjoy it. It's a good investment."
In addition, the new gift to endow a professorship in immigration law reflects her commitment to that legal field and her recognition that it's an uncommon specialization. "I did not realize how hard it is to recruit good teachers who care about immigration," she says. "It's such a niche practice. It includes issues of Constitutional law, human rights, international trade—we need to encourage professors to do scholarly research in that field."
She recognizes that the gift may seem showy, and that's the last thing she wants. In reality, she says, she was "a little shocked" at the amount she was asked to give. But the gift becomes manageable, she says, when paid over a number of years, and partly as a bequest—and the tax deduction, she notes, is immediate.
Margaret, who marked her 61st birthday this year, turns reflective when asked about the timing of her gift. "You come to a time in your life when you ask, what impacts you the most? You want to do some good," she says. "After the kids are grown and all the tuition is paid, what do you care most about? You want to help other people, not just your immediate family and children."