Paying It Forward

Paying It Forward
Gene Chu Establishes Chu-Wiendl Scholarship
By Kelly Clisham MFA ’16
Gene Chu ’89 headshot
Gene Chu ’89.
Backed by stock market success, Gene Chu awards a $1 million gift to make the dream of a Wilkes University education a reality for native Chinese students.
When Gene Chu ’89 left his native China to pursue a college degree in the United States, he carried $300 and a cardboard box of his belongings. Nearly four decades later, he carries a heart full of gratitude and a determination to honor the opportunities made possible by Wilkes University and the late Joseph A. Wiendl, former member of the Board of Trustees.

According to Chu, he was motivated by a Chinese proverb that, paraphrased, says, “When you’re thirsty and someone gives you a drop of water, you pay it back with a bucket.” That bucket comes in the form of the Chu-Wiendl Scholarship, supported by a $1 million gift that will provide annual funding for native Chinese students to attend Wilkes.

As a young man in China, Chu wasn’t sure what his future held. Though he was selected to train as a fighter pilot, his grandfather determined that Air Force service was too dangerous. Chu passed the national entrance exam to go to college, but the Chinese government ended his academic career in retaliation for his withdrawal from the pilot program.

Though he found work as a lab technician and met Xu Feng, who would become his wife, government and societal changes left him disheartened. “I did not feel an opportunity for the rest of my life,” Chu said. “I could not see my future.”

Chu’s outlook changed when his father’s work as a mining engineer gave him the chance to meet Wiendl, a mining executive for Ingersoll Rand. Wiendl served on the Wilkes Board of Trustees and his son, Joseph Wiendl ’69, was a standout wrestler for the Colonels. Impressed by Chu’s drive, Wiendl agreed to sponsor his education at Wilkes. “That literally changed my life. Wilkes changed my life,” said Chu.

The young man who had no hope now faced a world of possibilities summed up by his father’s inspiring words at the airport: “Son, now you are heading to America. The sky’s the only limit. Explore your dreams.”

Chu arrived in Wilkes-Barre in 1986 with a dream to succeed and the challenge of a language barrier. His school in China taught Spanish as a second language, not English. So he could better understand the lectures and retain important facts, Chu bought a mini-cassette recorder and a bunch of tapes. He sat in the front of all his classes to record the lectures, then listened to them each night instead of going out. “I was such a nerd back then,” Chu joked.

In addition to the Chu-Wiendl Scholarship, Gene Chu also paid it forward for his nephew, Simon Chu, by recommending Wilkes University to him while still a student in China. Read more about the 2020 computer science graduate’s current success as a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science on page 23.
Gene Chu as a young man in China; Chu with business partner and fellow alum Joe Smith
Top: Gene Chu as a young man in China; bottom: Chu (right) with business partner and fellow alum Joe Smith ’90.
At Wilkes, Chu also picked up plenty of memories and life lessons he carries to this day. He tells a story of turning in a report for a management class an hour late. His grade was an F. “I was furious. I spent so much time on it. I argued with the professor. Do you know how rich that is?” Now, Chu laughs as he recalls the incident. But he remembers the professor reinforcing the importance of deadlines. “Learning is not only from the book,” he said. “A deadline is a deadline. I will never be late.”

That was just one of the business lessons Chu learned on campus after switching his major from biology to business administration. He graduated from Wilkes in 1989, then earned a master of business administration degree from Baruch College. Welcoming change as he did with his education, Chu worked in positions as a corporate controller and a car salesman. “Find a way to identify your strengths and make the best out of it,” Chu advises. “Adapt to the environment.”

Chu built his business success on his next career change. Though he didn’t know much about granite countertops, Chu started to learn about their popularity and value. Seeing the opportunity in this new challenge, he incorporated Granite America with fellow Wilkes alums Joe Smith ’90 and Franco Rossi Jr. ’90. Following an economic downturn, Chu and Smith revised their operating plan and launched CounterTopia, now a multi-million-dollar business.

Throughout his journey, Chu remains thankful to Wilkes and the Wiendls for putting him on the path to success. Spurred by gratitude and strong stock returns, he decided now was the time to give back to his alma mater and pay it forward to other native Chinese students who dream of learning in America.

“I can’t wait to see people take advantage of this scholarship. I want to change people’s lives one by one,” said Chu. “If I die tomorrow, I’ll die with a big smile on my face. I could tell Mr. Wiendl and my parents that I made a difference. I could not be more proud. If I had more money, I would do it again.”

While Chu considers himself semi-retired, that doesn’t mean he’s done searching for new opportunities and adventures. “Learning is a lifelong journey. Enrich yourself,” he said. He and Xu, his wife, enjoy experiencing different food and culture through domestic and international travel. Though hard pressed to pick a favorite spot, they just returned from the Maldives.

Chu engages in a few hobbies too. He plays table tennis and pickleball to make friends and stay in shape. “A little bit of competition doesn’t hurt,” he said. Chu is also learning to sing and wants to perform both solo and with a choral group once he’s fully retired. “I can never get bored. There’s so much fun in life,” he said. “Make life colorful and dynamic.”

The dynamic life Chu has built is a long way from his uncertain days in Beijing, and it all started with Wiendl and Wilkes. “We all live in a way that has some sort of purpose. I carry a lot of hope,” said Chu. “I didn’t have hope back then. It’s Wilkes that gave me hope and gave me opportunity.”

At Wilkes, You Will ____________

How does Gene Chu fill in the blank?

“At Wilkes, you will be equipped to deal with uncertainty and challenges. The world is a big class. Wilkes University is just step one.”