Scott’s Interview with Carol Paull

Full Interview Audio

Introduction

Carol Paull was born in Taipei, Taiwan prior to moving to the United States at age three and growing up in Oxford, Mississippi. She returned to Taiwan for her high school years but decided to study at the Texas A&M College of Engineering, and has lived in America since then. Ms. Paull has worked in a variety of fields, including building up and running her own businesses, yet the one that has stuck with her is in the education sector. She is currently the primary instructor of Waco’s Kumon Math and Reading center where she works to meet the learning needs of her students while raising two children of her own. As a former employee of her Kumon center, she was the first woman I thought of interviewing for this project because I wanted to know more about her history after seeing firsthand how she is able to touch the lives of children, as well as their families.

Early Life & Higher Education

Ms. Paull has maintained a close relationship with education throughout her entire life. Her family moved to America due to her father’s pursuit of a Ph.D. and many of the memories of her childhood we discussed revolved around her experience in school. Even today the city of Oxford only has a 3.4% Asian population, so being one of the few Asian families living there in the 80s led to her realizing that in some ways she was bound to stand out, especially as a first-generation student. She spoke no English upon her arrival in the U.S. and had to learn a new language while grappling with the reality of growing up in an entirely different world.

Well, being the very few in Mississippi, I’ll tell you that was a shell-shock for me. From ages 5 to 8 you knew you were a minority. And Oxford, Mississippi, you’re in the deep south with very conservative views and your parents don’t speak- you know, my mom doesn’t speak much English, my dad can read and write better than any American out there, but when he speaks, he speaks with an accent.

Her family faced many of the same struggles as the Asian-American families we studied in our course did. With Ms. Paull’s father working hard to earn his degree, that, unfortunately, left his family to fight through the everyday hardships of life, like filling out paperwork, on their own. Similar situations are found in Amy Tan’s article, Mother Tongue, where she must assist her mother in daily activities that, while easy for native English speakers, are a burden for first-generation immigrants to keep up with in a society that does very little to assist them.

This experience was mirrored when Ms. Paull returned to Taiwan as a young teenager, needing to master Mandarin again while competing for spots at top schools.

“I went back home to Taiwan, I had to learn Mandarin which was very tough as a seventh-grader when you’re reading and writing on a first-grade level. But I had a few teachers that really believed in me, my math teacher for one. She put me in her class which, you know, the structure of school is very different… She believed in me, she believed in my skill, so she put me in that class even though I struggled in my other classes… I was illiterate, basically, so she definitely was my role model. She guided me through those 3 years, through 7th, 8th, and 9th grade, and because of her encouragement, I was able to test into the top sixth school in central Taiwan. Without that support, I wouldn’t be where I am today and it’s also shaped my career as a Kumon instructor as well. You know, she has really influenced me and taught me to believe in myself and to have that same faith in my students.”

When asked to talk about her role models, she said that many of the influential figures in her life were teachers that helped her to reach her full potential. I have found that this is reflected in her interactions with the Kumon students. Ms. Paull is compassionate and encouraging to each and every child, regardless of if they are struggling with a concept or breezing through higher-level work.

Following her schooling in Taiwan, Ms. Paull returned to America to pursue degrees in computer engineering and computer science at Texas A&M University. She had always known that she would complete her higher education in America and was fully supported by her family. The first years were easy for her due to the academic rigor she faced overseas, but the college and graduate school environment presented other challenges.

“When I was in graduate school and it was my first research meeting and granted, I was moving into this research group and this is where I was going to be. When I graduated from my undergrad I was starting to work for my professor and being the only woman sitting at that table when there’s four or five different male colleagues, you know, when it’s time to get coffee they look at you and it’s like, really?… No. The answer is no. That is not my role. You have to respect yourself first before you can get others to respect you and I think that’s very important.”

I feel incredibly fortunate to know the Ms. Paull who has been shaped by these experiences for the better. My impression of her has always been that of a strong and capable woman who instills those values in others by practicing them openly. She encourages both students and employees to be serious with her in order to build a trusting relationship where both parties benefit, rather than one where a person is reduced to getting coffee.

Professional Life

“Between age 28 and 35 I’ve owned multiple businesses. Kumon is my passion and will probably be my primary business until I grow old, but I can see myself owning multiple businesses again. I like to be challenged.”

Ms. Paull has built up several businesses since graduating from A&M, but decided to switch professions following the financial crisis of 2008. She volunteered at schools and then became a teacher for a few years, yet found it disheartening to be limited by the state curriculum because it imposes many restrictions on what content appears in lessons how it is taught. There was no way for her to cater to the full learning potential of her students in a public school setting. Thus, she opened her Kumon center in 2016 with the goal of being able to educate children in ways suited for them. Ms. Paull prides herself on having one of the most diverse Kumon centers, especially because it comes with the responsibility of making sure that all students feel safe and supported.

I tell the students in here, when you’re in here this has to be a safe environment… I think to be a good leader you have to lead by example and so I think if I am accepting of all my students, my staff will be accepting of all my students. I think if I’m accepting of my staff regardless of, you know, of their race, of their choices in life, then my students will be accepting of my staff. And in this little environment that I have of about 130 students and 10 staff members, I think if we can do it in our organization then that will slowly spread.

This message resonates in every part of her work. I have been able to see first hand how well she treats all of her students and employees regardless of their backgrounds. Working at Kumon was a very pleasant experience for me because I felt truly included when I compared it to other environments in my life. I believe that this level of commitment to inclusion can only be present when it is cultivated by someone who has been oppressed and thus has a strong desire not to let anyone else face the same struggles.

Intersectionality & Feminism

I think that even though we claim we’re freedom of speech and want equality for all, I don’t think that holds true in our government, in a lot of our corporate environments, but we’re still fighting. I think a lot of women are still fighting for equality of being who they are and I think that’s important, and I do want my children to be that way.

Ms. Paull has fought for her own equality throughout her entire life, which I feel very humbled to know more about now. Having only witnessed her as someone who looks down upon discrimination, I never knew her personal history with it that led to her being so outspoken. She says that a big part of her perspective correlates to how she was raised, as well as how she was treated in her marriage. Many of her stories reflect what Arlie R. Hochschild discusses in her article, Gender, Status, and Feeling. Within the household, the division of labor is often unequal. This can refer to both physical activities, such as chores or taking care of children, and emotional labor like having to take care of stressful situations. Women are left to handle the majority of emotional work in many cases, which Ms. Paull comments on in her own life. She believes that these issues are still current and need to be assessed in the modern household for partners to truly be equals that treat one another well.

The unfortunate reality of living in the United States as an Asian-American is coping with the many layers of stereotypes that society has placed on them, ranging from the ‘model minority’ concept to some people calling COVID-19 the ‘Chinese virus’. Ms. Paull has dealt with this by being open in these situations because her opinion is that if you shed light on an issue, it will be handled far better than if it is ignored. I see this stance as being very progressive because it takes the power of critiquing words sent her way and returns them with more strength. She finds that if you do not address matters directly, people will only see it as you having something to hide. Her ideas on this match well with the TEDTalk entitled Call Me By My Name, Not My Stereotype by Jolie Brownell we viewed as class material. Ms. Paull clearly understands who she is as a person and how the intersections of her identities lead to her perception in both personal and professional spheres, which makes it even more admirable for her to be so upfront.

Conclusion

After working with her for over a year and a half, having more insight on her past has truly been illuminating to understanding her better as both a person and an employer. I am incredibly fortunate to have been able to have such a discussion with her because although we have been able to bond as first-generation citizens, our situations are very different and I can see my own privilege more clearly as a result. Our identities may be distinct, but she has taught me much about how to cope with inequalities while remaining positive in my time at her Kumon center.

Citations

Brownell, Jolie. “Call Me By My Name, Not My Stereotype.” TED, TEDx Talks, 23 Jan. 2020, www.ted.com/talks/jolie_brownell_call_me_by_my_name_not_my_stereotype.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Univ of California Press, 2012.

Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue.” The World is a Text: Writing, Reading, and Thinking about Culture and Its Contexts (2003): 291.