"If we commit our lives to making things better, even just a little, we can change the world."
"Columbia planted the seed, and I blossomed from there."
A wish and a dream
Born in Beijing, China, Marian Chuan '57SW and her twin sister came to the United States after World War II. Their parents had studied in the U.S., and it was their wish and dream that their children be educated here as well.
Marian studied at Winthrop College in South Carolina and at the Merrill-Palmer Institute in Detroit, where she received a fellowship in infant and child development. She then worked at Yale School of Nursing as an instructor in child development. It was there that she discovered the field of social work.
Two social workers, in particular, introduced her to the profession. "These women's questions, comments, and presentations were about things that were close to my heart," Marian recalls. "They were very highly regarded, and their professionalism inspired me."
They encouraged her to apply to Columbia.
Feet finally on the ground
At Columbia, Marian says she became the person she always believed she could be. "The program was hard, but very, very exciting," she says. "The faculty were pioneers in the field, and none of the students wanted to waste any time. You wanted to learn everything you could and apply it to your fieldwork."
She describes it as the most exciting time in her life. "I became a person at Columbia," she says. "I grew up there and finally got my feet on the ground."
Over the course of her career, Marian has worked with people at every stage of life—from infancy to adolescence to old age. Looking back, she sees a common thread. "Really it is about social justice and human rights," she says. "Things can always be better. Places can always improve. We can always do a little bit more."
Getting out of the box
For Marian, social work has always been about getting out of the box, making people comfortable, and making them feel that they belong. "Wherever there are people, that's where social workers belong. Our tools are ourselves, our minds, and our hearts. We are the human medicine. We make things better."
Ten years ago, Marian walked into a long-term care unit and saw wheelchairs lined up in the halls, heads drooping, eyes closed. "There was no life," she recalls. One of the residents took Marian's hand and told her she simply wanted a friend.
Since then, Marian has personally invested more than 6,000 hours in long-term care units and recruited 40 volunteers to follow her lead. Says Marian, "The lack of human touch, the isolation, the hopelessness—to bring life to these people you have to bring people to them."
Much has changed in that center. "We didn't perform miracles or do anything different," Marian says. "I simply held a person's hand. I am a social worker always. Columbia gave me this precious seed for me to grow."
Continuing the work
Even now into her nineties, Marian credits Columbia for giving direction to her life. She attended the University on a scholarship and is committed to helping today's students in the same way.
Marian established a charitable gift annuity, which makes payments to her for life with the balance going to support financial aid at the Columbia School of Social Work. She has also included a gift in her will with the goal of creating an endowed scholarship fund for the School of Social Work.
The Columbia School of Social Work has long been a pioneer in preparing students to promote human rights, social justice, and the well-being of individuals and communities. Marian appreciates that the school will continue training generations of students to use their lives to make a difference.
"I don't have many years left to do this work myself," she says, "but if I can leave a little something behind to help young people learn the skills to bring more good into the world, that is my wish and my dream."
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