BY EILEEN O'GRADY '18
A 1974 yearbook photo shows Elaine Chao ’75 as a junior at Mount Holyoke, reclining in the sun on Skinner Green. Clad casually in jeans and a striped t-shirt she looks every inch the Mount Holyoke student as she smiles off to the right of the camera, a slight breeze buffeting the ends of her long black hair.
There’s nothing in this photo that hints of the high-powered dynamo in the red suit and black pumps who would go on to become the 24th Secretary of Labor under former President George W. Bush, and the 18th Secretary of Transportation under President Donald Trump. Yet Mount Holyoke is where Chao began her academic and professional career as an economics major with a high level of campus involvement.
Mount Holyoke alumna Eileen Epstein ’75 remembers eating dinner with Chao nearly every weeknight of their senior year. Usually in a group with six other girls, Epstein and Chao would eat in the dining hall of the Mandelles dormitory where they lived.
“She was really nice and very very bright,” Epstein said of Chao. “And I enjoyed her company. We all did.”
Chao is described by those who knew her as having a refined demeanor and an eloquent, articulate way of speaking, even in the early years.
“She really stood out on campus with her long, jet black hair,” wrote one alumna from the class of 1976. “Back then there were few Asian Americans at MHC.”
Today Chao is rarely spoken of in the world of politics without a reference to her immigrant background. The Transportation Secretary was born in Taiwan, and arrived in the United States at the age of 8, aboard a cargo ship with her mother and two younger sisters. Chao’s parents had decided to relocate their family to America when her father, a sea captain, was given the opportunity to study here. The boat ride was an arduous journey that took 37 days to complete.
Upon arrival, 8-year-old Chao spoke no English, and struggled her way through American grammar school. Today, Chao frequently accredits the United States with giving her the opportunities she needed to become successful. A quote on her website reads: “I think America’s strength lies in its freedoms and the opportunities that are available in this country, anyone, and I mean anyone who has ... dreams can excel. They can if they work hard, if they believe in themselves and they never give up.”
As a student, Chao certainly worked hard. She was driven, her classmates said, and immersed herself in her college work with determined focus. Granted, studiousness has never been an unusual quality in a Mount Holyoke student, especially within Chao’s friend group, who would often study in the library together every night right up until closing time. But Epstein remembers Chao as being particularly determined.
“She was not a fool-around kind of person,” Epstein said. “We knew she was going to be an achiever.”
Holly Hughes ’75 was in Chao’s golf class during the last semester of their senior year and reported that even a last-minute PE credit wasn’t something that Chao took lightly.
“She seemed quite focused on achieving proficiency in golf, and didn’t clown around like the rest of us did," Hughes said. There were only four students in the class, yet Hughes said she and Chao never bonded.
Elaine Chao threw herself into the pursuit of a large number of campus activities with the same kind of determination with which she completed her studies. She was an athlete, playing forward on the field hockey team and participating in the horseback riding club. She was employed as a tour guide and student recruiter for the Admissions Office, and also served as a student liaison for the economics department. The first semester of her junior year, Chao was co-editor of the yearbook, and in the second semester she completed a domestic exchange at Dartmouth College, where she studied economics and banking.
Yet despite a high level of on-campus involvement, Epstein remembers that college-age Chao did not engage much in social life on campus. Her friend group wasn’t large, and aside from the friends she ate dinner with she was not close with many other people on campus.
Alumna Jane Clunie ’73 was Chao’s school-appointed big sister, but says that she had limited contact with the girl, and that their interactions stopped after her first year.
“Elaine was extremely independent and didn’t need me,” Clunie said.
Chao was also extremely reserved in nature, often preferring to listen during group conversations or to ask questions of others rather than volunteer any information about herself. One alumna, in describing her friendship with Chao, reportedly said that despite the number of times she ate dinner with her, she “couldn’t have told you the number of siblings Chao had.”
That careful distance didn’t offend anyone who knew her — people got along with her and enjoyed her company. But something unusual occurred in the last month of Chao’s senior year that changed the view many alums had of her.
Chao left campus very suddenly. So suddenly, Epstein said, that no one in their friend group knew where she had gone.
“We didn’t know what happened to her.” Epstein remembers. “Nobody knew where she was.”
And though they were worried, they never did find out the reason for her disappearance, which turned out to be permanent.
Chao didn’t walk at graduation that spring, and it was also the last time those in Epstein’s friend group saw or heard from the Transportation Secretary until they began seeing articles in the newspaper about her many professional successes. Elaine Chao ’75 had disappeared from their lives as quickly as she had appeared.
Many rumors emerged among the bewildered new alumnae to try and explain their classmate’s strange disappearance so close to graduation day. The most widespread of these rumors was the suggestion that there had been a “problem” (read: academic honor code violation) with Chao’s senior thesis, which caused her to be placed on academic probation and prevented from graduating. That particular rumor has since been proven false, based on records from the MHC economics department that reveal Chao never wrote a senior thesis.
But reasons for Chao’s sudden departure from campus remain unclear.
The Mount Holyoke Office of the Registrar has confirmed that Elaine Chao graduated in November 1975, five months behind the rest of her class. According to records from the economics department, she was not enrolled in any classes during that period. And events records from Mount Holyoke Archives and Special Collections indicate that no official ceremony was held for students graduating in November.
Mount Holyoke alumnae are reluctant to speak about Elaine Chao, and those who do often ask not to be identified. The majority of alumnae and faculty members who were approached by the Mount Holyoke News for this article declined outright to be interviewed about her, including one of Chao’s former professors, who admitted to having Chao in class, but indicated that he did not wish to talk about her.
Some alums speculate that something occurred in the last two weeks of college that caused Chao to sour on Mount Holyoke, which is the reason, some say, that she never attends alumnae reunions and class events, and doesn’t respond to Mount Holyoke-related emails or interview requests.
But though she may have graduated late, it did not stop Elaine Chao from taking the professional world by storm. She went on to attend Harvard Business School, and then to work as a lending officer at Citibank, as the director of the Peace Corps and as CEO of United Way of America before being appointed Secretary of Labor in 2001. In 1984 she was awarded with one of the first ever Mary Lyon Awards, given by the Alumnae Association to young MHC alumnae who “demonstrate promise or sustained achievement in their lives, professions or communities.” In 1993 Elaine Chao married Senator Mitch McConnell, and is often credited as the reason behind his electoral success.
Now in her third month as Secretary of Transportation in the Trump administration, Chao continues to make waves in her professional life, and is expected to continue to tackle problems facing United States infrastructure with the same determination she exhibited as the young Mount Holyoke student, laughing on Skinner Green.
Mount Holyoke professor of politics Christopher Pyle began teaching at Mount Holyoke in the fall of 1976. He never knew Chao, and declined to speak about the rumors he’s heard.
“Foolish things that people do in their youth ought to stay in their youth. Even if they’re public officials,” he said.