Remembrance of Becky Morton from Kai Ou

A few hours after I received an admission offer from NYU, Becky emailed me for the first time to encourage me to accept the offer. This was my first interaction with Becky, and while I didn’t need much persuasion to want to study with her, I was struck by the sincerity and warmth of our email exchange. The responses I usually received from senior scholars in my grad school application process had been full of rejection and cold shoulders. Becky was the first one to make me feel welcomed.

As I tried to survive at a competitive graduate program, Becky continued to be a supportive advisor and caring mentor. She replied quickly to my emails, made time to listen to my ideas and proposals, and she even helped me find resources to fund my research. We also developed several projects together and conducted a series of experimental studies in New York, Abu Dhabi, and many cities in China. It was a unique experience. When we discussed how to implement a research design in an area inhabited by Chinese ethnic minorities, I was over-confident in my understanding of the local stories and was surprised by how much effort Becky put into challenging my arguments. She never made it easy for me. There were many awkward moments in which we couldn’t agree with each other, and we sat in long silences. I told Becky that I was frustrated I couldn’t convince her. She told me: “You need to prove you are right.” I didn’t understand what she meant by this at the time, but I finally know that she was teaching me the truth of academia – we need to think outside of the box and prove our research.

However, the education under Becky was not limited to research; she often taught me fun lessons about cuisines from different countries. When I came to the U.S. I had little knowledge about dining etiquette in the West. I had become accustomed to viewing menus in China with pictures of the food, but the first time Becky took me to an Italian restaurant for dinner, the menu had only the names of dishes and their ingredients. I wasn’t sure how to order, but Becky taught me the importance of understanding a restaurant’s cultural context, and that even if I didn’t understand every word on the menu, I could still order if I knew something about the culture. During these dining events, Becky spent time teaching me the difference between a margarita and dry martini, why the spoons and forks were placed in specific orders, and how to use a napkin to gracefully spit an olive pit. I loved sharing the knowledge Becky gave me with my family when we went to restaurants.

As many of you know, Becky was not one to heap praises, and I learned quickly not expect to unearned approval. After graduation, I planned to leave New York. I went to Becky’s office to say goodbye. We chatted for an hour, then I walked her home. On the way to her apartment, I recalled all the funny stories and embarrassing mistakes I made as a graduate student. Just as I was regretting some of those moments, Becky told me: “I am very proud of you.” I stopped in my tracks. Those six words validated five years of work and struggle.  As she listed all the things she thought I did well, it reminded me of when she talked proudly about her daughters’ work and accomplishments. It made me realize we are all her children.  

Thank you, Becky, for everything you have done for your students. You influenced me a lot and made me a better person. You are one of the most important people in my life. I believe that there must be something that ties people together, and that our ties will continue even in spirit. I hope I will always continue my journey as your student.

– Kai Ou, Florida State University