Fong Chan, giant in field of rehabilitation counseling, retiring

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Giant in field of rehabilitation counseling retiring

After growing up in a refugee settlement in Hong Kong, Fong Chan overcomes long odds to become one of field's leading scholars

Ask Fong Chan about his path to the United States, why he ended up at UW–Madison or how he became regarded as a leading scholar in the field of rehabilitation counseling, and the soft-spoken and humble academic consistently downplays his many remarkable feats.

“A lot that happens in life is by accident or happenstance, and it’s about who you cross paths with,” says Chan, who has spent more than two decades on the UW–Madison campus and today is the Norman L. and Barbara M. Berven Professor of Rehabilitation Psychology. He also chairs the Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education. “I’m so grateful that a kid from the ghetto was able to become a professor at a world-class university.”

Cover of 2018 disAbility AdvocateWhile it never hurts to catch a few breaks, Chan’s intellect and drive are big reasons he escaped the slums of Hong Kong for Wisconsin. Add in his longstanding desire to help people in need and a “natural talent” for statistics and research, and one can start to understand how Chan forged a celebrated career at UW–Madison with the nation’s No. 1-ranked rehabilitation counseling program (according to U.S. News and World Report).

“Over the past 25 years, Fong has had an enormous influence on the success of our rehabilitation psychology program, including the national and international reputation that our program has achieved,” says UW–Madison Professor Emeritus Norm Berven.

Chan has published more than 325 papers in refereed journals and more than 50 book chapters. He also has published five books and received numerous prestigious awards recognizing the quality and importance of his research, including the 2016 American Psychological Association Division of Rehabilitation Psychology Tamera Dembo and Beatrice Wright Award, and the 2016 Distinguished Career Award from the National Council on Rehabilitation Education.

Chan is also a highly regarded and prolific researcher who has played an integral role in six recent research projects that have received more than $20 million in support from a range of funding agencies. Among the areas Chan has addressed are: the psychosocial aspects of disability and intervention; demand-side factors in the employment of people with disabilities; positive psychology and disability; research methodology; and evidence-based practice in vocational rehabilitation.

“Fong’s record as a researcher and scholar is truly extraordinary and, in my opinion, unparalleled in rehabilitation education,” adds Berven.

Chan is retiring at the end of the 2017-18 academic year. Unfortunately, it’s not because he feels he has given all he can to his field. He is dealing with late-stage lung cancer.

Chan plans to retire on Sept. 1 because, he says: “I don’t want to be a burden on my department and want them to begin searching for my replacement right away.”   

‚Äčtaking the long route to UW-Madison

Chan grew up in Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s after his parents fled communist China seeking a better life in the then-British colony.

“My parents lost everything when they left China and we grew up very poor in a refugee settlement,” says Chan.

His parents would go to work each day, and Chan would watch over a younger brother and make sure the two got to elementary school. The family lived on the east end of Hong Kong, at the end of the bus line. One day, Chan and his little brother were walking and his brother slipped on the oily street and a bus rolled over his brother’s leg.

Fong Chan in front of Education Building
Fong Chan, shown here in front of the Education Building on
Bascom Hill, has been a faculty member at UW-Madison since 1992.
Chan’s brother lost a lot of skin on his lower leg, so doctors took skin from his thigh to use on the injured area. He spent time in a convalescent home to recover after surgery.

“At a young age I became exposed to children with impairments and disabilities,” says Chan, who notes his brother recovered from the accident. “So from the time I was maybe 9 years old, this was built into my mind as something that interested me.”

Chan credits the work of Salesian Fathers, who served and built schools in the ghetto, for giving him a solid foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. After his mother refused to sign papers allowing him to enter the seminary in sixth grade, Chan says he set his sights on helping others, with the hopes of becoming a school counselor or social worker.

Although Chan was a capable student, he didn’t score well enough to be admitted to either the University of Hong Kong or the Chinese University of Hong Kong. So he spent one year working as an “office boy” in Hong Kong’s financial district. He saved enough money to travel to America for college, choosing the more affordable UW–Stout over Cornell University to major in hotel and restaurant management.

“My mom wouldn’t lend me money unless I majored in a profession that would pay,” says Chan.

Chan started at UW–Stout in the spring of 1974 and, thanks to his major, lined up a summer job at Paul Bunyan’s, a restaurant in Wisconsin Dells. He made enough money that he no longer needed support from his parents and decided to change majors. Although he was thinking of going into social work or a similar field, there was no such option at UW–Stout, so he majored in vocational rehabilitation.

“It reminded me of my experience with my little brother and it ended up being exactly what I was looking for,” says Chan.

He went on to earn a master’s from Southern Illinois University in 1980 and eventually landed at UW–Madison, where he received a Ph.D. in rehabilitation counseling psychology and applied statistics in 1983.

He then worked at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas from 1983-88 and the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he was an associate professor from 1988-92.

“I like statistics and research,” says Chan, who also is a licensed psychologist. “I was very lucky to meet and cross paths with some very talented people who appreciated my work.”

He then saw an announcement for an opening at UW– Madison. Although Chan “didn’t really think too highly of myself,” it became clear the people back in Wisconsin were hoping he’d apply. Chan returned to UW–Madison, joining the faculty in 1992.

“Once I got back to Wisconsin, I was able to build my name and I thrived,” says Chan.

'grateful for the opportunities I received here'

Since arriving back at UW– Madison, Chan has flourished as both a leading researcher and a top mentor in the field.

Chan has served as the director of doctoral training with the rehabilitation psychology program since arriving on campus. During that period, he has helped approximately 100 students earn a Ph.D., giving him a large influence in a field that’s relatively small.

“So many of our former graduate students, along with many other researchers, scholars and leaders within our field, count Fong among their most influential mentors,” says Berven.

Chan, meanwhile, credits Berven and Emeritus Professor Ken Thomas for their decades of service and work as being leaders in making the Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education what it is today.

“I’m so grateful for the opportunities I received here,” says Chan, who in recent years has focused his work on developing better ways to help people with disabilities find jobs.

One project — launched in 2016 and backed by $4.37 million in funding from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research – is examining successful business practices in the private sector that are leading to companies hiring and retaining workers with disabilities.

“Employment is very important to personal identity,” says Chan. “If you’re at a social event, someone will ask you, ‘Oh, what do you do?’ That’s how we identify ourselves. Good employment is a key indicator of living a relatively happy and enjoyable life.”

Chan says he, too, has enjoyed his work and lived a great life. He overcame long odds in Hong Kong to become a giant in the field of rehabilitation counseling.

“I’m happy for every month God is giving me and I’m at peace with that,” says Chan.

Chan pull quote