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New York City
December 2002

Welcome Back, Madame Secretary Elaine Chao
By Dr. Carole G. Hankin with Randi T. Sachs

I was so pleased when U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao accepted my invitation to return to Syosset High School and receive our very first Alumni Award of Distinction. Secretary Chao graduated Syosset High School with the Class of 1971. Administration, faculty, students, and parents were all eager to meet her.

It was a wonderful visit, and Syosset Schools rolled out the red carpet for our former student. We greeted Secretary Chao with the requisite ruffles and flourishes and “Stars and Stripes Forever” played by our 50-piece marching band. Yet with all the fanfare, the strongest lesson of the day was that success comes from hard work and the strong support of family. It’s not necessary to be the star student in high school to achieve success as an adult. The Secretary brought along the people who were most important to her—her parents and three of her sisters and their families, and it was truly a nostalgic visit for all of them to return to Syosset.

The first order of the day following introductions was to show the Secretary some of our classes in action. As Labor Secretary, she was particularly interested in our business and technical courses.

A lot has changed since Secretary Chao was a student at Syosset High. When we went into a computer multi-media class, the teacher was the same woman who had taught Elaine L. Chao shorthand when she was a student. There were no more typewriters or steno pads in the room, and the Secretary was delighted to see that the teacher as well as the students had adapted to using the very latest technology.

At a luncheon reception in her honor, administration, faculty, students, parents, and community leaders had a chance to meet the Secretary, and she graciously expressed her admiration of what she had seen of the present-day Syosset High School. “This is quite a magical place,” she said. “I’ve been so impressed with all the students and faculty I’ve met, and how you are learning in a state-of-the-art environment here.”

After lunch, the Secretary addressed an auditorium filled with about 700 students. She shared the truly fascinating story of her family’s immigration to the United States when she was eight years old. It was the quintessential American Dream success story, and it was very real to our students, especially when she related some of her own high school experiences, and mentioned some of her favorite teachers who are still on the faculty today.

“I didn’t have to worry about dating,” she said, “as my parents wouldn’t let me. I was kind of shy, quiet, but I joined some clubs like yearbook and the theater club (where I worked behind the scenes), and I worked hard.”

Chao went on to Mount Holyoke College after Syosset, and then to Harvard where she earned an M.B.A. Her career includes serving as Director of the Peace Corps and CEO of the United Way of America. As Secretary of Labor, of course, she sits on President Bush’s cabinet, an experience she described as the most exciting in her career.

But it is very clear that Secretary Chao has never forgotten for a moment the two people who were most instrumental in helping her to achieve her goals. Her parents, Dr. and Mrs. James Chao, were her own guests of honor at her visit back to Syosset. I’m sure that all the parents appreciated the respect and gratitude she showed to them.

The students of Syosset High School greeted the Secretary with unbridled enthusiasm. They were very excited to meet someone who had moved from where they were sitting today to the White House Cabinet.

“I didn’t go to the prom when I was here,” Secretary Chao told them, “but it really didn’t matter. With hard work all of you can achieve anything you set out to do. Remember, don’t count out that quiet boy or girl sitting next to you. One day they may be a cabinet member, too.”#

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