Diane Chen: A passion for freedom

by Todd Cohen

photograph by Robert Willett

015Diane Chen knows only too well that a family’s financial well-being can change in a heartbeat.

A native of China who was plunged from a privileged early upbringing into the impoverishing nightmare of the Cultural Revolution, Chen cherishes the freedom, financial and otherwise, that many Americans take for granted. Americans can say what we like, do what we want, and go where we please. We can also get ourselves deep in debt.

Chen, a Raleigh resident who will be 62 in June, wants to help Americans climb out. She’s doing that with Consumer Education Services Inc., a Raleigh nonprofit she founded in 1998 to educate and assist debtors. It has a broad reach. With an annual budget of $25 million and 85 employees, CESI has served more than 300,000 consumers throughout the United States and helped 70,000 of them pay off their credit card debts.

“Society needs better financial literacy and education, and we need to start much earlier,” says Chen, who received master’s and doctoral degrees in adult education from N.C. State. “It doesn’t matter what their income level is,” she says. “People don’t do a good job in managing their money.”

The Cultural Revolution, a movement aimed at ridding China of capitalist influence and getting it back to its farming roots, had a big impact on you when you were 15. Your parents were thrown in jail, and you enlisted in the Red Guard, a paramilitary youth group, and marched to Beijing in support of Chairman Mao. What did you learn from that experience?

I spent three years in the countryside and five years in the military.  The living conditions were very harsh, a lot of hardships, almost starvation. That really toughened my endurance and character to not give up and still have hope, although I didn’t have the opportunity for education, because the schools were closed.

While working at a research institute in China, you developed a plan for a group of universities to form an exchange program with N.C. State University. That led you here to study in 1988. How did you adjust when you got to Raleigh?

There were so many things here that people in China didn’t have. I welcomed the diversity. That was so different from the homogeneous, closed society in China. I also had the first taste of democratic society. People have the freedom to express their ideas and opinions about authority. That is more impressive than higher living standards like taking a shower every day and having freshly squeezed orange juice.

Public education is under a lot of budget-cutting pressure these days. What impact will budget cuts in our public schools, community colleges and universities have on our state?

My thesis and dissertation focused on the economic impact of community colleges in their communities. I’m deeply concerned about where we are going in terms of public education by cutting the budget. That has profound long-term impact. It will have an impact on courses universities can offer, and on enrollment. Children of low-income families will have a more difficult time getting a college education.

You and your son, Li Yu, an assistant U.S. attorney in New York City, both received scholarships for your graduate work. In this current tough economic climate, what role do scholarships play?

Scholarships give opportunities to people who otherwise would never have a chance to get an education and develop their talents.

Who are your heroes?

My parents. They were public servants. They instilled early on the need to give and to serve. And people who had courage like Nelson Mandela, Eleanor Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Eleanor Roosevelt advanced the equality of women.

What motivates you to give back?

I had the opportunity to get a good education, to start a business. Those are the opportunities that make me feel I should do my part to give to other people the opportunities to develop their talents and pursue education and careers.

What is your philosophy of life?

Having hope and accepting imperfection, both my own and that of others.

What charities are nearest to your heart?

The Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio. They give non biased, non partisan news about what’s happening in the world, and bring it to the people. They really enrich my life, living in Raleigh, and keep me connected to the world.

What do you do for fun?

I enjoy outdoor activities, like hiking and kayaking, And I’m a fanatic about working out daily, going to the gym. That is how I release the stress. And weekends I visit with friends, going to movies and plays and trying different restaurants. I’m a pretty good classic ballroom dancer.

What are you reading?

My Beloved World, by [U.S. Supreme Court Justice] Sonia Sotomayor. I identify with a lot of what she experienced. I was really inspired by the story, and her candor in describing her life.