Donor Profile: The Cheng Family

The Cheng Family: Education as Transformation
25 Years of Supporting CoSE Students

By Gail Mallimson

While the C.Y. Chow Memorial Scholarship in Mathematics and Computer Science is 25 years old this year, its roots go back more than 100 years to China. When C.Y. Chow was a child in a small village in China in the early part of the 20th century, he was an avid reader with a passion for learning. Excelling as a student at his local parochial school, he became fluent in German. His dream was to become a doctor one day, but his family could not afford medical school. Instead, he attended the next best thing available to him – a prestigious military school. There, he studied side by side with students who later became China’s leaders.

During World War II, C.Y. was enlisted in China’s army, eventually rising to Rear Admiral. While he was successful in the Army, he and his wife Kai-King had eight children, and it was often up to her to creatively stretch resources so that there was enough food on the table for everyone. Always looking for opportunities, C.Y. found a job after the war as a principal at a small rural school in North Borneo, and the whole family relocated. Knowing that their kids needed to go to high school and college for a better future, the Chows moved the family again, this time to Taiwan, where C.Y. taught German at a university. In order for his children to go to college, he worked a second job and eventually moved to Canada once they had all graduated.

C.Y. Chow

C.Y. Chow

Mary Joseph and Jennifer Cheng

Mary Cheng (left), Joseph Cheng (right), with their daughter Jennifer in Taiwan.

Mary Cheng with her parents and siblings

Mary Cheng (center). Her mother Kai-King Chong and her father C.Y. Chong are to her left and right. Behind them are Mary's siblings.

One of the Chow’s daughters, Mary, eventually emigrated to the United States with her little daughter Jennifer and her husband Joseph Cheng, whom she met in college in Taiwan. They landed in the East Bay and received help from an organization called the Chinese Newcomers Service Center. Mary, who had studied English in graduate school in Taiwan, was hired by the organization to help Chinese immigrants fill out forms and other transactions. Joseph worked for shipping companies, eventually landing a job as a warehouse manager in Alameda.

Once Joseph got this promotion, Mary (B.S., '86) went back to school to pursue a computer science degree at SF State. Her daughter, Jennifer, remembers her mom waking up at 4:30 in the morning to prepare her children’s breakfasts and lunches, and then take BART to San Francisco to go to school. “My mom really enjoyed being at SF State,” says Jennifer. “She said the learning environment was wonderful and that she was really supported by the professors and her classmates.”

Receiving her computer science degree from SF State in 1987 was a transformational experience for Mary and her family. Almost immediately after graduation, she began to work as a civilian programmer at the Naval Air Station in Alameda. The steady income from Mary’s job allowed Joseph to pursue his dream of starting his own company. When the Naval Air Station closed down, Mary began working with Joseph at his cotton warehouse and shipping company, and with her experience in programming, she was able to create databases that were tailored for the business and contributed to its growth and tremendous success.

After 10 years in business, the Chengs took stock and celebrated their success. They decided it was time to give back to the community and created the C.Y. Chow Memorial Scholarship in Mathematics and Computer Science at SF State. Now in its 25th year, the endowed fund awards scholarships to undergraduate students in the College of Science & Engineering. Over the years the Chengs have continued to donate and steward this fund, growing its impact.

The fund has had a transformational effect on awardees. Diana Yu Yu (BS, Computer Science ’20), an international student (now alumna) who came to study at SF State because of the economic instability in her home country of Venezuela, received the award in 2019. A first-generation college student and future data scientist, Diana shares the Cheng family’s passion for education. “Seeing how committed I was towards my studies, my parents realized that they did not want me to face the same hardship and struggles as they did,” says Diana. “They worked hard and made many sacrifices in order to allow me to devote more time and energy towards my studies and receive the best possible education. Obtaining this scholarship will help my parents to accomplish their dream and lessen the economic burden.” 

For more information, contact:

Holly Fincke ( She/Her/Hers )
Senior Director of Development
College of Science and Engineering
(415) 338-7118