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The key to Ko’s success: treating students like family

Housekeeper Esther Ko stands outside Alexander Residence Hall, whose students nominated her for a Massey Award.
Housekeeper Esther Ko stands outside Alexander Residence Hall, whose students nominated her for a Massey Award.

Burma is the country where Esther Ko and her parents were all born, but it was never the place she belonged.

Her father was a soldier in the British Army, her mother a nurse and they raised Ko and their other six children in Thailand, next to the border with Burma.

Life was always hard there, Ko said, dangerous because of the political turmoil that engulfed their lives.

Burma, Ko’s country of birth, has a different name now, and Ko — after years of hardship and struggle reaching it, has found a new country.

The name change that Ko is most proud, she will tell you, is the one that now appears before her name: U.S. citizen.

Another honor that appeared by Ko’s name last year, thanks to the more than 20 students and colleagues from the Alexander Residence Hall who nominated her, winner of a C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

Ko still remembers the excitement she felt when Chancellor James Moeser left a message on her cell phone. He didn’t tell her in the message she had won, but she could think of little else until he called her back the next day. “‘I have good news for you,’ he told me…”

‘I love them as my kids’

Ko and her husband Thomas have three daughters and two sons. She treats students, she said, little different than she treats her own children.

“Sometimes, I wish them ‘Good morning, how are you doing?’ and we start talking about how things are going in their classes. Some students are very nice and they will tell you everything that happens to them.”

Ko can’t help worrying about them when they leave the building, just as she does her own children.

“It is like I love them as my kids, as my own children,” Ko said. “I tell them, ‘If you go to Franklin Street, be careful.’”

In their nominating letters, students described Ko as someone who consistently goes beyond what is required of her. They care so much about her, they said, because she shows them how much she cares about them each day by how she treats them and their building.

“She always takes time from her work to actually have a genuine conversation with the residents on the hall,” wrote one student. “A day without hearing her cheerful, uplifting, ‘Good morning,’ just does not seem complete. She provides encouragement and advice, but most of the time she just listens with sincere interest and concern.”

Another student nominator recalled his first visit to Carolina as a high school senior. “I was drawn by the warm spirit, hard work ethic and feeling of pride that Carolina students and employees seemed to have in their school,” the student wrote. “My housekeeper the past two years is the embodiment of this Carolina way.”

Another student lauded Ko’s attention to detail. “She takes great care in everything she does to ensure the bathroom is spotless,” the student wrote, and is always careful to warn students when the floor is slippery lest they fall.

Other students wrote of how Ko told them that she cleans for them — not simply for the approval of her supervisor — and that she receives so much respect from students because she gives it to everyone around her.

One student said she deserved the Massey because of her determination, hard work and character, adding, “She is the type of woman that other women, myself included, should strive to be.”

One student recalled the morning she sprained her ankle while running. After limping almost a mile back to campus, she realized she did not have the key to her dorm. “I sat on the steps outside Alexander in the rain while my ankle throbbed,” the student wrote. “Suddenly, I heard a sound from inside. Mrs. Ko recognized me immediately, opened the door and helped me safely to my third-floor room. The deep care, sympathy and kindness are what make her a wonderful employee.”

A long journey completed

Ko and her family know what it is like waiting out in the cold.

In 1996, she and her husband were recognized as political refugees, but the door to the United States did not open until they arrived to Chapel Hill in 1999 with help from their two sponsors, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church and the Community Church.

The wait was hard on all of them, Ko said, but particularly difficult for their five children — Josiah, Magnolia, Michelle, Melissa and Joseph.

It took nearly three years of waiting in Bangkok — from the time they applied for refugee status to the time they were recognized to the time they finally left — and during all this time none of their children could attend school.

Ko did her best tutoring them until they finally entered the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools in 1999.

By then, her oldest, Josiah, was old enough to be a junior in high school, but he started the high school as a freshman. He is now a junior at Carolina majoring in economics, still living at home to save money.

“They know to study,” Ko said. “Last night, he had tests and he studied the whole night.”

Magnolia, the oldest daughter, is taking classes at Durham Technical Community College with an eye to coming to Carolina to earn a nursing degree.

Michelle is now a freshman at N.C. State University majoring in art.

Melissa is a junior at East Chapel Hill High School, while Joseph is in the eighth grade at Smith Middle School.

Ko’s mother, brother and three sisters all live in Chapel Hill as well. Ko’s three brother-in-laws all work for the University, as does her husband Thomas. Trained as a medic in Burma, Thomas has worked as an operating room attendant at UNC Hospitals since 2000.

Many of her family members took the shorter journey to Charlotte last May to witness Ko take the oath of citizenship with some 80 others.

Ko joined her two oldest daughters had already become citizens, at the time, and her husband and one of her sons will soon join them, Ko said. Their younger children have to wait until they reach the age of 18 to apply, she said.

As for winning the Massey, it was an affirmation of sorts, about who she is and how far she has come.

Ko said she was grateful for the $6,000, but added, “It wasn’t about the money. It was exciting because they showed me they appreciated my work. And they are happy for me about this award.”

Her country is the United States now. But it at Carolina where she and her family have found their home.

Originally published by University Gazette: Jan. 10, 2006

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