Defying the Odds

Alumna Bambi Nancy Shen survives and thrives

Bambi Nancy Shen was told she was inferior from the time she was a little girl growing up in French Indochina (now Vietnam).

The daughter of a Chinese diplomat, Shen (M.A. ’76) received consistent, negative messages from her mother, who berated her and repeatedly told her how she wished she’d been born a boy.

“My mother’s harsh words to me throughout my formative years had somewhat of an opposite effect on me,” said Shen, whose perseverance and spirit makes her a natural choice as this year’s University of Missouri-Kansas City Defying the Odds Alumni Award winner.

“She told me I would never be married because I was too ugly,” Shen said of her mother. “She told me I would always be a burden to my parents, just a useless mouth for them to feed. She insisted that because I did not receive a Chinese education, I was stupid and worthless in Chinese society.

“I was determined to overcome all of her negative prophecies and make a living and a life for myself.”

Not only has Shen overcome, she has thrived, making a full and fulfilling life for herself in the U.S. She is an author, a philanthropist, a teacher fluent in four languages, a former restaurateur, an inspiration to women and a mentor to international students, who are often invited to her home for meals or to stay.

Her life’s journey was fraught with obstacles and challenges.

When Japan took over Vietnam, Shen and her family endured internment in concentration camps, surviving hunger and bombing air raids, which twice came close to taking her life. Shen persevered and sought out an education, winning a scholarship and traveling alone on a one-way ticket to the United States to attend college.

“I was determined to make it in the U.S.” she said. “At that point, it was sink or swim. I chose to swim and ‘find the gate in every wall.’ ”

In the U.S. she continued to face challenges, including discrimination and a near-crippling leg injury she sustained while high-jumping in gym class in college. But she kept going, graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Siena College in Tennessee, and eventually returning to college to earn a master’s degree in French language and literature from UMKC, where she also taught French.

Today she is a frequent speaker at battered women’s shelters, sororities and college campuses. She is a member of the Edgar Snow Memorial Foundation Board and co-founder of Homes from the Heart, an Overland Park-based organization that provides homes for those in need in El Salvador, Haiti, Guatemala and Nicaragua. She also works as a French, Mandarin and Cantonese medical interpreter in area hospitals.

In 2011 Shen published her memoir, The Uncrushable Rose: A Memoir from Concentration Camp to Becoming a Free Woman. The title of her book comes from a lesson she learned from her father. In one of the maximum security concentration camps where her family was imprisoned, he planted two rosebushes.

“As I watched him plant them, he gave me the most important lesson in my life,” Shen said. “He said to me, ‘These rosebushes are also in the concentration camp, but it makes no difference to them, their nature is to bloom, and they would do so no matter where they are planted. We must learn from them. We must not allow our outer circumstances to keep us from being what we were born to be. So learn to bloom wherever you are planted, or even transplanted.’ ”

Throughout her challenging and extraordinary life, Bambi Nancy Shen has followed her personal mantra: “Have courage to take action and practice kindness to others.”

She encourages students and others, “Don’t take any harsh words too personally. Let other people’s judgments roll off your back. Shake them off the way a duck shakes off water after a swim. To put it simply, be like a duck.”

Each year, the UMKC Alumni Association presents alumni awards to one honoree from each school and five campus-wide awards at its annual awards luncheon. This year’s event, which will include the presentation of the 2014 Chancellor’s Medal, will be held on Thursday, April 24, on the UMKC campus. For information and tickets go to the 2014 Alumni Awards luncheon website.

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