The word is out. Professor Faridah Awang's fame has reached all the way back to her alma mater at Southern Illinois University. According to Dr. Awang, "It all started with EKU Stories, Kentucky Forward Newspaper, Madison Living Winter Magazine, and now I’m being featured by my alma mater, Southern Illinois University Alumni Magazine." The story, “Simply Unique: Personal Challenges Build an Inspiring Identity for Alumna” was written by Caleb Hale. Excerpts from the story are below.
Dr. Faridah Awang is a popular and award-winning professor of corporate communication and technology in Management, Marketing and International Business at Eastern Kentucky University. She is also the first Malaysian-American to become a full professor in her academic field in the United States. Her journey from a poor girl in Endau, Mersing, Johor to a respected academic was not easy, but it was so inspiring it’s become the subject of a book and forthcoming movie in her native country.
Faridah is the Arabic word for unique and exceptional. Dr. Faridah Awang learned that early in life from her grandmother, who raised her, her older brother, and a cousin in a rural community on the southeastern tip of Malaysia. Living up to her name became a personal quest, and the key to achieving it was education.
"My grandmother didn't have any education, but she instilled in me a love for it," Awang says. "She would say, 'unlike lovers who may leave you, if you love education it will always be with you.' So I thought maybe this is something I should pursue."
Early experiences included copious study, participation in debates and lectures, sports and student organizations – anything she could think of to build her communication skills and stand out. After college, Awang went to teach at the University of Technology MARA Malaysia in Perak, had a child, and had a marriage end. But in the mid 1990s, she and her then-5-year-old son, Hafiz, embarked on a new and bigger journey, driven by another vision of her grandmother's that Awang would make a name for herself in a foreign country.
Awang traveled more than 9,000 miles to the U.S. to seek what would ultimately be a doctoral degree. This journey led her to Southern Illinois University in the autumn of 1995.
A Mentor and a Friend
A professor, mentor, and friend, Dr. Marcia A. Anderson, clicked with Awang immediately. Anderson recalls the first time she spoke with Awang over the phone. “She called and was at a university in Oklahoma and wasn’t pleased with the program she was getting,” With Anderson’s help, she was able to transfer to SIU. “Immediately when I met her, she knew what she wanted to do and was ready to go.”
Diligence comes to mind first when Anderson describes Awang. “Always focused, she knew what she wanted. She’d always go overboard on assignments. I don’t think she ever slept.”
Awang attended night classes, her son in tow. Anderson says Hafiz would sit outside the classroom doing his homework. During breaks she and other students would chat with him.
After finishing her bachelor's degree in 1996, Anderson helped Awang pursue her master's. Trouble struck, however, as an economic recession in Malaysia caused her scholarship to be pulled. Undeterred, Awang sold many of her possessions, including her computer, and took a job as a custodian.
"I had said I'm not going to leave SIU without a degree, " Awang recalls. "It didn't make sense to return home. I refused."
Because Awang had been forced to sell her computer for money, she relied upon the computer labs in Morris Library.
"I love the library. That's like my second home," she says. "I would say my best memories would be spending my Saturdays and Sundays on the 4th floor, the balcony level. My son would go with me. Sometimes we got tired of that we went to the Carbondale Public Library."
Anderson continued to help Awang, both academically and sometimes financially out of her own pocket. Awang remembers a day when Anderson had asked how long since she’d last eaten, handed her fifty dollars, and told her to get what she needed. “She (Awang) always paid me back on schedule,” Anderson says.
In 1999, a year after completing her master’s degree, Awang was involved in a serious car accident. The incident left her bed-ridden for several months. She lost some of her motor skills and had to undergo physical therapy to get them back.
Though a timely and expensive ordeal, Anderson says she was not surprised to watch Awang move through it matter-of-factly and ever focused on her end goals.
“She’d always be bouncing back,” Anderson says. “She’s always been so nonchalant about everything, even the car accident. If it was a challenge, you’d rarely see her wear down.”
Being unique doesn’t just happen, as far as Awang is concerned. “Success is not accidental, it’s a mindset,” she says. “"Many times being comfortable can ruin you. What happened to me, I was tested by so many challenges. And it was a contributing factor for me to keep going. “If I didn’t have all these challenges, I might be simple Faridah. The challenges are what gave me my uniqueness.”
Throughout her troubles, Awang was being recognized, winning awards for both her master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation. In 2002, the year Awang completed her doctoral degree at SIU, she won the national Delta Pi Epsilon research award, becoming the first Malaysian-American to do so.
Awang joined the faculty of Management, Marketing, and International Business at Eastern Kentucky University in 2002, enjoying many successes, accolades, and leadership roles on the campus. She obtained full professorship in 2011.
Becoming an Inspiration
Awang returned to her home country in December of 2016 to speak as a Distinguished Scholar for series of educational forums. Part of the tour included an interview on a local radio show. Awang told her story over the air and it became one of the most listened to segments in the show's history.
She was approached about writing a book, something she finished in June of 2017. The autobiography, “Musafir Cinta 4 Musim” is currently selling well in Malaysia. Now, a director and producer have approached Awang about a movie of her life. All of the sudden attention is strange, Awang says, but she’s telling her story for a reason. “I’m a very private person. I really don’t like to make myself know for something like this. I’m not very comfortable with fame,” she says. “But I understand the need to impact others so they can find strength in whatever adversity and challenges they face.”
Anderson continues to be in contact with Awang. In fact, Awang made sure Anderson could watch a few of her Malaysian television appearances. Anderson admits she couldn’t understand what was being said, but she was no less proud of her former student and life-long friend.
“It’s marvelous that she’s being recognized for the work she’s done, “ Anderson says. “She’s become a well-respected business educator and leader in various associations. It’s with pride that I’ve seen what she’s been able to do over the years.”
Awang's commitment and focus has also rubbed off onto her son. Now grown, Hafiz recently finished his MBA in marketing and business intelligence at Xavier University and now works for Verizon Communications.