Faculty of Arts & Science alumni Johnny Cheung and David Wong became close friends while living in residence at University College, sharing a commitment to education that would reunite them years later.
“It was an enjoyable time. We would work hard, but at the same time we had a lot of fun,” says Cheung, who earned his bachelor of arts in economics in 1987, the same year Wong earned his bachelor of science in biochemistry.
Cheung earned a bachelor in law from the University of Oxford in 1989, an LL.B. from Dalhousie University in 1990, a master of laws from the London School of Economics in 1993 and a master of business administration from INSEAD in France in 2002.
Wong earned his medical degree from U of T in 1992 and a master of science in community health in 2015. He joined the Temerty Faculty of Medicine at U of T in 2002, teaching undergraduate medical students until last year, when he began teaching at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
While life took them on separate paths after university, Cheung and Wong recently teamed up to create Bearing Academy, a consultancy that mentors and advises students on university and career choices.
Their passion for education extends to philanthropy, and they’ve been donating a portion of their consultancy fees to Room to Read, a non-profit for children's literacy and education that works across Asia and Africa.
We spoke to them recently from their homes in Hong Kong.
Why did you start Bearing Academy?
Cheung: I wanted to start a business in which I have experience. It’s very competitive to get into university and get started on the right career path these days. I noticed a few consulting firms in Hong Kong and China that help students, but I thought their services were not comprehensive enough and their geographical reach was limited. And I thought I could close that gap.
Most of these consulting firms only give advice to students on how to select and get into university. That’s only one part of the education and career cycle. I wanted to develop something much more comprehensive for students, from the point they start thinking about their future education and career, and then mentoring them as they progress.
I also designed Bearing to be online so it would not be restricted by geography and we could help more people. Our consultants are based in different parts of the world and so are our students.
Wong: I thought back to when I was a student. I certainly had questions about my career, but there were times when I didn’t know what to do or where to go for help. I was very fortunate my lab supervisor at U of T gave me a lot of sound advice on what career path I could follow after I finished my undergraduate degree. If it wasn't for him, I probably would have been stuck in a job that I wouldn't have liked.
Why do you donate a portion of your business revenues to Room to Read?
Cheung: They do two things. One is increase children's literacy by bringing books to children in remote locations in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, for example. And the second thing they do is give free education to children in developing countries. I think that's particularly meaningful. Girls are especially vulnerable because many don’t get a chance at an education.
Wong: I have a lot of relatives on my father's side who were in China at a time when it was very poor. They were smart people, but they didn't have the chance to get a proper education. I’ve been very fortunate to have much better experiences, and I think that everyone deserves a chance to study the things they want to and let it bring out the best in them.
What are the some of the lessons you took away from U of T?
Cheung: Hard work, self-reflection, teamwork and cooperation. Cooperation is a good thing; you need to work with other people to make things happen. If you are just by yourself, the things you can do are very limited.
Wong: I certainly learned a lot, and it wasn’t just the stuff they taught us. Living in residence, I learned how to deal with people and how to communicate effectively in different situations. After school, I found out I had a lot of experience from what I went through, and I was able to apply that.
What advice would you give to students?
Cheung: I’ve had my share of failures, but you have to understand that if you try something, it may not always be successful at first. Keep trying, and eventually you’ll do okay. And have an open mind. Something may look like a good idea, but it turns out it’s not for you. After you graduate, stay connected to the U of T alumni community. It’s important and helpful.
Wong: You have to work hard, no matter what discipline you’re in. That's number one. But it’s also important to have balance. You cannot just study 12 hours a day. You need to enjoy yourself and look after yourself. That is very good for your mental health. We all need that.