July 11, 2022

A Legend and a Legacy
Helena Yu’s Service and Dedication to Women’s Education in China


The United Board joins her family in honoring the life of Helena Hsien-Tsai Yu, who passed away in 2021 in her centenary year. Helena was a distinguished woman and a longtime friend and partner of the United Board in supporting women’s education in China.

Helena (second from right, top row) with family, circa. 1947

Helena was born in Tianjin, China, on 10 April 1921. She was the third of six daughters of Yu Chuanjian and Pan Zhenlan. Her father was the chief administrator of Nankai Middle School, a preeminent secondary school in Tianjin, China at the time, to which he devoted over 50 years of his life. In 1937, during the Sino-Japanese War, Mr. Yu was instrumental in moving the school to Chongqing, China’s wartime capital, and eventually moved his family there. Helena’s mother was the headmistress of a girls’ middle school in an era when it was unusual for women to have professional careers. Her parents instilled in their daughters the spirit of performing to the best of their ability, supporting the public good, and appreciating “health and life,” values which Helena demonstrated throughout her life.

Helena (second from left, seated) with Ginling College and Ginling High School alumnae in the San Francisco Bay area in 2015

Helena entered Ginling College in 1941 after the college had moved from Nanjing to Chengdu during the war. She found her education at Ginling College very fulfilling and forged strong ties with the faculty and fellow classmates there. It would be later in her life when she had settled in the United States and re-connected with her alumnae friends who also resided in the United States that this strong and mutually supportive network would be truly valued, sustaining her throughout the rest of her life.

Through the Ginling Alumni Association of America and in partnership with the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia, Helena, like many of her Ginling alumnae, committed part of her life to supporting women’s education in China in general and Ginling College in particular. Throughout her lifetime, she had made major contributions to her alma mater in terms of student scholarships, faculty development, and building funds as well as supporting the work of the United Board itself.

After graduating from Ginling College, Helena joined the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) in Shanghai as their first librarian. In 1949, she was responsible for moving the voluminous library holdings to UN ECAFE’s new headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand. It was there, after marrying Tseng-Tung Chen, that she gave birth to two children, Terry and Teddy. In 1956, Helena made the bold move of taking a two-year-no-pay-leave to attend graduate school at Columbia University, an endeavor that was funded by the Ford Foundation.

As a young librarian at the United Nations / At the UN Headquarters in New York, circa. 1970

After graduating with a Master’s degree in Library Science from Columbia in 1957, she applied for and was given a position at the newly established United Nations headquarters in New York City. For much of her early career, Helena took on two roles, that of a devoted single mother and also of a strong-willed, determined and hardworking professional woman. Helena was employed by the United Nations as a documentalist librarian for 35 years until her retirement.

Helena lived a modest life, working hard, saving, and investing wisely, while donating selflessly, not only to Ginling College, the United Board, Nankai Middle School, but also to numerous other non-profits. While she made the United States her home, she never forgot her family and friends in China and supported them in many ways in their times of need. She also sponsored a nephew and niece from China so they could complete their education and develop careers in the United States.

Coming from a line of dedicated educators in her family, Helena was a strong and much-admired role model for her large family in China and her own children, instilling in them strong work ethic, resilience, love of formal education in pursuit of a career as well as love of lifelong learning. Following their mother’s example, Terry and Teddy also pursued work, both professionally and on a volunteer basis, that advocated for and helping others. Helena’s other pleasures in life included health and fitness; traveling worldwide; as a member of the Ginling College Alumnae chapters in New York City and the San Francisco Bay area, actively taking part in their fundraising and social activities; and spending time with her growing family.

Helena passed away peacefully on 23 September 2021 in Santa Barbara, California, surrounded by members of her family. She lived her last seven years in California with her son Teddy and his wife Eileen, fulfilling her last goal in life which was to live to a hundred.  Helena is remembered fondly by her two children and their spouses, four grandchildren, and four great grandsons. Her family could think of no better way to honor the extraordinary life of Helena and what she most valued than to create an endowment fund in her name with the United Board. The Helena Hsien-Tsai Yu Memorial Fund thus created is a most befitting legacy in honor of Helena to carry forward her benevolent spirits to further support women’s education and leadership in Asia.

(Based on material supplied by Terry Chen Rothchild and Teddy Chen; photos courtesy of Terry Chen Rothchild and Teddy Chen)