Tale of a Linguistic Pioneer at Holy Cross

Hui Li ’21

Co-Chief Graphic Designer

December 2020 marked the end of a year unlike any other. Professors who were previously teaching on campus shifted to lecturing online. This was no different for Professor Claudia Ross, who has taught Chinese in the classroom for decades. For her, December 2020 marked a bittersweet goodbye after a long career. Having held positions at other institutions in the years before joining the Holy Cross faculty in the 1980s, Professor Ross retired in Fall 2020 after teaching her final semester of Chinese remotely. 

In addition to teaching Chinese, Professor Ross served as the Chair of the Department of World Languages, Literatures, and Cultures (previously known as the Department of Modern Languages) for four terms. She had a role in advising students and helping them find the right language courses for them in their time at Holy Cross. Outside of working directly with students, Professor Ross introduced new study abroad opportunities for students interested in taking their Chinese comprehension and speaking skills to a new level. She previously served as the resident director of a study abroad program in Beijing and managed to maintain that connection into her career at Holy Cross. The partnership between Holy Cross and the institution in China is still ongoing today.

In 1987, her first year at the college, Professor Ross was tasked with establishing the Chinese program at the college and adding the Chinese major to the school curriculum. Creating a program from scratch is no easy task, and this was especially true during a decade when funding for Chinese studies was scarce nationwide. Furthermore, enrollment in Chinese language and culture courses was uncertain due to the fluctuating perceptions of China as a world power.

Progress in the Chinese program happened gradually. “Step by step, we were able to grow by adding faculty, and that took a long time before the college recognized the need to add additional faculty in Chinese, so I was the only permanent [professor of Chinese] for a very long time,” shared Professor Ross. She was happy that the college recently hired a new tenure-track professor to teach Chinese in 2020.

Later in her career, Professor Ross started meeting with other instructors who were interested in Asian languages and culture. Eventually, the professors from departments across campus ranging from political science to religion to history started joining the conversations. From here sprouted the idea to create an Asian Studies program at Holy Cross.

Graphic design by Hui Li ’21

With a lot of collaboration, the department has grown into what it is today. The progress the college has made to creating programs involving a wide range of disciplines has helped foster the growth of what started as a small idea amongst a group of faculty from different departments. “The college is more highly valuing interdisciplinary studies and interdepartmental studies. Asian Studies is a department that definitely fits into that category. [The program] evolved [to be] that way, [but] it did not start that way,” Professor Ross stated.

Speaking from experience, Professor Ross shared, “It’s really important to find people who are interested in doing the same thing that you’re interested in. Establish a group of people who can work together and demonstrate an interest in whatever it is that you want to start.” Given that she started meeting with faculty from different departments before social media became widespread, and that they were able to create the Asian Studies program, Professor Ross suggested students and faculty who want to start something new or take an existing idea to a new level can find others more easily online.

Reflecting on her past, she offered this piece of advice for younger students: “Find your passion. Don’t be shy, don’t be afraid to explore. Don’t just stick with things you know from high school. You never know [what your passion might be] until you try.” Professor Ross’ passion for Chinese did not begin until college, when she studied abroad in Taiwan and realized that she loved the language and culture. 

For faculty, staff, and older students about to enter the professional world, she stressed the importance of prioritizing tasks and maintaining a good work-life balance. “Don’t feel like you have to do everything to the highest standards at the same time. You’ve got to find out what your priorities are, what you need to get done now, and what you need to be doing well now, and then allow for the fact that some of the things you really like to do that you don’t have time for right now, you will have time for later. If they don’t have to get done now, they don’t have to get done now.”

When asked about her hopes for her department after her departure, Professor Ross said, “My hope is that the Chinese department continues to be vibrant.” She is auspicious both about the Chinese faculty who have been recently promoted and the newly-hired tenure-track professors that have joined in recent years.

“I feel like I’m saying goodbye to a very important part of my life,” Professor Ross said about retiring. She described the college as “a home for all of us” and a “welcoming place.” Several of her students and colleagues demonstrated that by putting their best wishes into a virtual card for her retirement celebration. This is a sign that the tightly-knit bonds that define the Holy Cross community have stood the test of physical distance.

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