“This fund will directly give students opportunities to feed their souls and bodies with nourishment in the form of meals, conversations, and retreats,” said Carol Gibney, director of solidarity and leadership in Campus Ministry. “I’m thrilled for the students who will be the beneficiaries of Theresa’s generous donation.”
Mao, now 85, is a retired chemist, businesswoman, and philanthropist who grew up in Taiwan and moved to the U.S. when she was 18 years old. In 1964, she was hired by one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, Exxon Mobil Corporation, then known as Esso Research, as the company’s first female chemist with a Ph.D. When she was 46 years old, her husband, Peter T.H. Mao, M.D., a pathologist, suddenly died from a heart attack. She became a single mother who raised their two daughters, then a junior at Rice University and a first-year student at Harvard University. In order to provide a living for herself and her family, she switched her career to investment in real estate, which included citrus farms, vineyards, and a fruit packing house. Both daughters followed in their father’s footsteps in medicine: The oldest is an ophthalmologist in Florida; the youngest is a pediatric infectious disease specialist in Massachusetts.
Mao was raised in a family of Presbyterians, including a grandfather and two uncles who served as ministers. But she became a devout Catholic as a teenager in Taiwan. One day, she encountered a Catholic priest on a long bus ride. Seven months later, she sought refuge in a mountainside church during a thunderstorm—coincidentally, the same priest’s church. The next summer, she studied under his wing and learned what it means to be Catholic. In August 1952, she was baptized by that same priest, John T.S. Mao, who would provide a scholarship for her to attend Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas. In 1962, she married Father Mao’s youngest brother, Peter T.H. Mao.
When she was a young woman in her 20s, she was accepted to teaching assistant programs at three schools in New York City—Columbia University, New York University, and Fordham. She said she was impressed by the reputation of the first two schools, but she chose Fordham because of its Catholic background; she wanted an education that would strengthen her own faith.
“I probably value my religion as a Catholic more than a person who was born Catholic,” Mao said earlier this year, “because I picked it.”
Mao loved her years at Fordham, but she was disappointed that there were no religious events or retreats for graduate students. Mao was also an international student who couldn’t afford to fly home to Taiwan during holiday breaks. Life on campus could feel isolating, she said.
“Undergraduates meet each other a lot more. Graduate students are different. They come in; they go. There’s so little time to meet each other,” she said.
Mao took matters into her own hands. One day after a late-night chemistry experiment, she suggested to her classmates that they eat dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant together. That one dinner turned into bimonthly meals with up to 20 students. They piled into cars—sometimes seven students in one vehicle—and shared meals at local Chinese restaurants, where Mao introduced them to Cantonese-style roast duck and baos. Their special dinners expanded to include Italian restaurants on Arthur Avenue and trips to roller skating rinks and musicals in Manhattan.
“Everybody just loved to go. We started with a small group, and then later on, everybody wanted to join in. We got to know each other a lot better … Now I want to help [today’s graduate students] develop their relationships,” said Mao, who earned a master’s degree in chemistry in 1960 and a doctorate in physical chemistry in 1964.
This year, she established the Theresa Lim Mao Graduate Student Retreat Endowed Fund, which will support an annual retreat program and dinners for graduate students at Fordham who want to deepen their relationships with their classmates and their faith.
“Retreats are a way to literally retreat from everyday life and step aside from busy schedules, particularly for students,” said Gibney, who will help coordinate the inaugural events this spring. “They offer students an invitation to deepen their understanding of who and what feeds their spirit, their relationships with others and God, with our rich Ignatian history and spirituality as a compass and guide.”
Mao’s fund is part of a planned gift that designates Fordham as a beneficiary of her individual retirement account. She is beginning to add funding to her endowment fund annually, to support the initiative now. Mao said she wants students to pay it forward, the same way she has done throughout her life.
“All of us can contribute to society by doing something for other people. If we contribute something to society instead of just making money and serving ourselves, in a small way, we can make the people around us happier,” said Mao, who now lives in Florida near her oldest daughter. “If all of us can do a little bit of that, that would be really wonderful.”