From Factory Worker to Engineer
Cal State East Bay senior graduates despite humble beginnings
From birth, the odds were not stacked in Chunli Cao’s favor. Born into a family of farmers in a tiny remote village on the corner of Yibin, in the southeastern part of Sichuan province, China, she recalls feeling isolated.
“I didn’t know anything about the outside world except for what I saw on TV,” Cao said. “If I go back home, I have to take an airplane. I have to take four hours on a train and then a motorbike and then walk an hour to get there.”
From the time she could remember, Cao focused on studying and being a good student, not sure where her efforts would take her since China only provides a nine-year compulsory education. For anything beyond that, including the equivalent of high school, students must apply, take tests and pay for tuition.
“My parents knew I really wanted to go to high school, but we could not sacrifice our family,” Cao said.
Instead, at the age of 15, Cao went to work at a battery factory in Guangdong Province, a 48-hour train ride from home. For less than $200 a month, Cao worked 12-hour shifts day in and day out.
“It is really bad working conditions,” Cao said. “You work from seven in the morning, and then you have one-hour break at lunch, and then you work until seven at night.”
It was during those long days, Cao noticed the engineers at the battery factory. They were finely dressed and looked well rested, and she made a promise to herself to someday make it off the floor and into the offices where the engineers worked.
It took four years, but, Cao worked her way up, becoming an assistant in the human resources department where she befriended the engineers she had admired.
“I met all different kinds of people who gave me encouragement and I saved money to go back to school,” she said.
Cao went to evening school and in 2011 moved to Oakland, eventually enrolling at Cal State East Bay.
This spring, she will graduate with a bachelor’s in math and has applied for graduate school at Cal State East Bay. It’s the next step in her plan to someday work as an engineer at a major tech company.
“My mom is so happy for me and so proud of me,” Cao said. “She says ‘keep going.’”
While Cao acknowledges her dreams outgrew the size of her tiny village half a world away, she is grateful for the experiences that led her to today.
“I am trying to change my generation from now on, and nothing can happen without education,” Cao said. “I am never going to have that situation again in my life or for my kids in the future. I understand the meaning of life. Go for your dreams!”