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As the winner of the Golden Apple Award, an award given to one outstanding University of Michigan professor each year, Economics Prof. Edward Cho took the stage of Rackham Auditorium on Monday night to tell a crowd of adoring students and community members about his upbringing, his struggle with a repetitive strain injury and his legendary cat, Munchy.
The award, which is the only student-selected teaching award at the University, is in its 27th year. Every professor who receives the distinction gets the opportunity to give a “last lecture” — their ideal class.
According to LSA senior Allisa Newman, one of the co-chairs of the award committee, the award is inspired by the teachings of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos, and celebrates teachers who give every lecture like it’s their final one.
“It’s based on an old teaching from the Rabbi … he advocated that you should get your life in order one day before you die, and this is for outstanding teachers who teach every lecture like it was their last,” Newman said.
The audience was made up largely of Cho’s students, like LSA senior Sindhu Devineni, who wanted to hear more about his life — and his cat.
“He has such a great energy that I really felt compelled to come,” Devineni said. “I just really want to hear more about his positive outlook on life. And he’s going to talk about his cat, Munchy, and she’s his world, so that’s really the highlight for a lot of people.”
Cho found out he had won the award when the committee burst into his Economics 102 lecture in March. He said before Monday’s lecture that the reality of the award didn’t sink in until a few days later, but he had put a lot of thought into what to say since then.
“It didn’t really hit me until a few days later,” Cho said. “At that moment it was kind of like what just happened? It was a complete surprise … (This lecture) is very personal, and I’m hoping students will be able to take something away from this that’s more than just classroom material.”
Cho started his lecture, titled “The Unexpected Benefits of Pain, Passion, and Pets,” like he begins his classes: by asking the audience to turn to their neighbors and introduce themselves. He then had the crowd practice his trademark classroom phrases — “Yuh” and “Nuh.”
When Cho said “Yuh!” into the microphone, the entire auditorium responded with a resounding “Yuh!”
After a short slideshow featuring pictures of his cat, Munchy, who Cho said was “basically his daughter,” he began talking about his upbringing on a farm in Cupertino, Calif. His parents both stopped formal education after junior high, and Cho grew up in a much lower socioeconomic bracket than most of his classmates. This led to insecurities later in life.
“Thinking back to high school, there’s a lot of insecurities,” Cho said. “The one that hit me the hardest, that I didn’t even realize until I wrote this speech — it was hidden in my brain almost — is probably the most pernicious one. It was, ‘do I have the ability, do I have the DNA, can I do this?’ … For those of you feeling the same self-doubt, the same ‘am I good enough?’, I want to tell you that you are. There’s nothing different about you.”
Cho did overcome those insecurities, and eventually found himself working toward a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The remainder of his lecture focused on his time in graduate school, and a story he said he hasn’t shared publicly before.
“Graduate school can be summarized for me in the simple equation, graduate school equals pain,” Cho said.
When he was in graduate school, Cho began to feel pain in his wrist. He would try to ignore it while he sat at the computer for hours a day, coding and organizing data for his dissertation. However, the pain didn’t go away. Instead, it began to spread.
“I kept going, I kept typing, and it started getting worse and worse,” he said. “I should have listened to my body. I didn’t. It started spreading all into my hand, all up this arm. It’s almost as if they did not belong to me, that my arms were someone else’s.”
Soon, the repetitive strain injury stopped Cho from being able to use his arms at all. Still determined to finish his Ph.D., he began to use voice recognition software to code the data, but eventually this wore out his throat as well.
“I never knew you could do that, that you could hurt your throat from talking too much,” he said. “This is definitely the most difficult part of my life. There’s two things happening: there’s so much pain in my throat that I just couldn’t talk anymore. I was mute. And my arms were shot … I remember having thoughts about cutting off my arms because they were the source of my pain … Pain warps your thinking.”
A year went by, and still Cho couldn’t use his voice. He didn’t know if he would ever get better, and he began to feel hopeless. At his darkest moment, he decided to turn to the animal shelter. This, he told the audience, was when he found Munchy.
“I thought, I’m like an animal, in the sense that I can’t talk, I can’t speak,” he said. “I can just run around and look at stuff. We’re the same.”
Like Cho, Munchy didn’t make noise. She would never meow, and the two spent their days staring at each other. Eventually, Cho began voice therapy and slowly regained the use of his voice. Miraculously, Munchy began to meow at the same time. Cho said this made him feel even closer to her.
Though the experience of his pain was difficult for Cho, he also counts it as one of the best things to happen to him, because it was what led him to teaching.
“It’s the best and worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said “Had I not sort of experienced all that pain, I probably wouldn’t be an educator. I probably would be in private industry somewhere, and maybe I’d have a different set of priorities. But after that, I could reorganize my life and my priorities, and in the end, it turned out that this story had a good ending.”
The evening ended when the Golden Apple committee presented him with the official Golden Apple Award. As they handed him the award, the entire audience gave Cho — and Munchy — a standing ovation.