RALEIGH — Diane Chen has lived several lives.
There’s her privileged upbringing as the daughter of a top official in a Chinese provincial capital, and her teen years as part of Chairman Mao’s Red Guard. Then there’s the period when, as a young mother, she struggled to gain an education.
It was that search that brought her to her current life in Raleigh, where in the past 25 years she earned a doctorate, helped build ties between her adopted and native countries, and, most recently, founded a nonprofit devoted to pulling consumers out of debt.
Chen, 61, is CEO of Consumer Education Services Inc., or CESI, a nonprofit credit counseling company that in 13 years has helped millions of people nationwide get out of debt. The company recently kicked off a partnership with Raleigh-based nonprofit Builders of Hope, which refurbishes homes for low-income families, offering credit counseling to potential homebuyers.
Chen sees her work as providing a service to the country that educated her and her son, who both earned advanced degrees through scholarships. He is now an assistant U.S. attorney based in New York.
“Both of us have tremendous gratitude for this country,” she says. “There is no other country in the world as generous as this one.”
She credits her happy landing after a long life journey to luck. But longtime friend and mentor Bruce Poulton, a former chancellor of N.C. State University, says Chen has earned her place.
“She’s had a lot of luck,” says Poulton, who met Chen on a trip to China in 1987. “But she’s been smart enough and worked hard enough to take advantage of it.”
Living through revolution
Chen, whose first name is an Anglicized version of “Dayang,” grew up in Shenyang, a large city northeastern China. Her father headed the city’s finance department.
His position afforded the family a posh life; she went to private boarding schools and had a maid, driver and nanny. But all of that changed abruptly when she was 15, and Mao’s Cultural Revolution took hold.
The movement sought to purge the country of all capitalist influence and return it to its agrarian values. Chen’s parents were jailed. Schools were closed, and the country’s youth were employed in a systematic destruction of the culture in which they were raised.
“All of the values we had up to the point were turned upside down,” Chen says. “The only thing left was rebellion against whoever you used to respect.”
Chen joined the Red Guard youth paramilitary group, and with some other teens marched to Beijing in support of Mao’s policies by singing, dancing and holding talks in the villages where they stopped.
Her next stop was a farm in the country’s far north, where the children did everything by hand, from cutting down trees for firewood and shelter to picking soybeans.
Food was scarce, and Chen slept with more than 20 girls in a room that was often freezing cold. But she believed this hard life would build her character.
By the early 1970s, her father’s position was restored, and he helped her find a post in the military. It was there that she met her husband, a military officer with whom she had a son.
She longed to attend college, but most did not admit married women. She got a job at a local research institute and found a college that would admit women for night courses in English. She worked six days a week, but made the 45-minute bicycle ride to the school three evenings a week and on Sundays to earn her degree.
A link with NCSU
She rose up the ranks at her job and was eventually given responsibility for forging ties with North Carolina researchers as part of her country’s push to modernize.
She developed a proposal among several universities to develop an exchange with NCSU. In 1987, Poulton, then chancellor, made the trip to Liaoning Province with five deans. Chen was their interpreter and guide.
“She was a remarkably efficient young lady, but she was quite demanding,” he says, with a laugh. “She tended to order us around.”
But they were also impressed and thought she might help them develop an ongoing relationship with China, which was then emerging onto the world stage as it opened its economy after years of tight government control.
So when Chen expressed an interest in improving her English, Poulton helped arrange for her to spend a year at NCSU, where she also worked on facilitating exchange trips between the two countries.
The culture shock was jarring. She remembers one of her first days in America, returning from a walk to her host family’s home with a bouquet of flowers that she had taken from their neighbors’ yards.
“I had no concept of private ownership at all,” she says.
She was hooked on the free flow of ideas allowed here, though, which stood in stark contrast to her experience in China. She returned to her country just days before student protesters were gunned down by state police in the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989.
She returned to Raleigh to earn her Ph.D., and her son, who was 14 at the time, soon joined her; she and her husband had divorced. She focused her studies on ways to improve North Carolina’s economy, which was suffering from a massive loss in textile jobs, through community college training.
After graduating, she helped start a company that arranged exchange trips with China; for her last such trip, she served as interpreter and liaison for Gov. Jim Hunt’s visit there.
Counseling on credit
It was an acquaintance who suggested to her the need for a group such as CESI to help people manage credit card debt. Chen lacked a business background, but she says the famed Chinese reverence for saving fueled her zeal for the project.
The program educates consumers on financial literacy through seminars and a call center. CESI works with individual borrowers and their creditors, striking deals to consolidate their debts at lower rates.
Last year, CESI counseled more than 60,000 consumers and handled nearly $40 million in payments.
CESI also makes sure its clients keep up with their negotiated payments. This constant contact is both difficult and crucial to success, Chen says.
“Cutting your credit cards is like going to an AA meeting,” she says. “It’s a step, but you need to stick with it, and that’s hard to do.”
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