During his ideal last lecture, Golden Apple Award recipient Edward Cho urged students to leave their self-doubt behind, know they are good enough and to remember there is hope and light at the end of hardship and pain.
Cho, lecturer III in economics, LSA, was honored April 3 with the 27th annual Golden Apple Award, which annually recognizes one professor for outstanding teaching. Winners are selected based on the quality and quantity of nominations from students, and the award is the only student-selected teaching recognition on campus.
Golden Apple Award recipients are charged each year with giving a lecture as if it’s their last. The award was originally inspired by teacher Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkanos, who taught others to “get your life in order one day before you die.”
Titled “The Unexpected Benefits of Pain, Passion and Pets,” Cho’s ideal last lecture painted an intimate portrait of his life, showcasing the lessons he learned outside of the classroom.
Along with lighthearted stories about childhood pets like chickens and rabbits, a push-up contest between Cho and his mother, and his mother’s habit of saying he looked like Elvis Presley, Cho also did not shy away from the more somber stories of his Cupertino, California, upbringing.
The son of South Korean immigrants, both of Cho’s parents had very limited education. His father was a gardener, his mother a homemaker. As a small child, income inequality was an apparent reality to Cho, who could see the difference in wealth between his own home and the households of much wealthier peers.
Growing up, Cho said the insecurity that hit him hardest centered on the questions of, “Do I have the ability? Do I have the DNA? Can I do this?”
While the parents around him had “several letters” after their names, indicating their vast experience in higher education, Cho said he had not even seen undergraduate degrees in his own life. His father dropped out of high school and his mother had essentially a junior high school education.
“My main role models in life did not have that ability, it seemed to me,” Cho said. “And so maybe I couldn’t do it either.
“That’s one of those things where I look back in my life and if I could tell myself something it would be that whatever self-doubt you have related to those kind of insecurities — which is ‘Do I have the ability to do something? Is something different about me?’ — the answer is no, you can do what you want.”
Cho also spoke about what he called the darkest moment in his life. While he rushed to finish his Ph.D. in economics, coding every day, Cho said he developed chronic, severe pain in his hands and arms.
After some time of using temporary fixes and pushing through the pain, he said his limbs “were shot.” He resorted to voice recognition software to continue coding, but eventually the same pain spread to his throat. He was left unable to speak.
Cho urged guests to listen if they have pain in their bodies, and to never ignore the signs of something wrong. He said it’s just as true for mental health as it is for physical health.
Through speech therapy, Cho steadily regained his voice. Once he began speaking, his adopted cat Munchy — now an infamous topic of conversation during Cho’s class lectures — stepped out of her own silence and began meowing as well.
“I think this experience is simultaneously the best and the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” Cho said. “I think the best part is had I not experienced all that pain and gone through all that, I probably wouldn’t be an educator. I probably would be, I don’t know, maybe in private industry somewhere.”
Cho closed with a brief story about how a visit to a friend led him to takie a job at U-M.
“I feel blessed that I am here,” Cho said. “I’m also glad I could tell this story to you in my own voice.”
LSA sophomore Cassandra Sample said she enjoyed Cho’s lecture, and that it showed a different side of him. She said she learned from the lecture to “listen to yourself, you know what’s good for you and you can do it.”
“Usually in class, he’s a little more joking, but it was kind of nice to see this more serious side of him,” Sample said. “He always shows that he cares about his students in class, but I think today, it came through in a different way.”