Sunday Profile: Serving up the American dream
Tyler Ting, who graduated in May from the University of Colorado Boulder with degrees in biochemistry and mechanical engineering, started developing his scientific curiosity and problem-solving skills as a child growing up in his parents’ restaurants: Carbondale’s Wok Inn and later, May Palace in Glenwood Springs.
Tyler, now 26, was a young engineer, building with Legos and making things out of chopsticks as his immigrant parents worked around the clock building a better life for their family in the United States.
This is a story about the Ting family, yes, and a respectful son, but also about the power of a small business and hard work to fulfill the American dream in a nation of immigrants.
Tyler’s parents, Steve and Jessica Ting, emigrated from Taiwan to the United States in 1989. They lived for a short time near family and friends in California but soon, a help wanted ad in a Chinese-language newspaper brought the couple to Carbondale, where Steve and Jessica both worked at the Wok Inn and Tyler was born a few months later.
Through disciplined saving, the Tings were able to buy Wok Inn, which they had owned for 11 years when they sold it and opened May Palace in 2001.
With two bachelor’s degrees in hand and a new job as a project management intern with biomedical firm Terumo BCT Tyler recently reflected on the lessons he learned while spending so much of his childhood in his parents’ restaurants. Those days taught him more than the value of hard work and determination; they helped him develop skills and attitudes that led directly to his interest in science and to his biomedical engineering career.
As his parents worked exhausting hours to achieve financial security and increase opportunity for their son, Tyler was with them at work but also “by myself for hours at a time. I wasn’t always getting my questions answered right away,” he said, “so it gave me a lot of time to process and develop my curiosity.” He explained how those conditions, born of necessity, provided good fuel for learning when he started school.
Tyler also described how his mom, who had to focus her attention on all the moving parts of running a business, gave him an ongoing assignment to keep him busy. She would have him sit down and meet people, find out about them and develop relationships. Later, when Tyler was in middle school, he would bring his guitar to “work” and offer to play and sing for patrons.
Tyler looked at these activities as having fun but beyond helping create a customer-friendly atmosphere at the restaurants, they taught him relationship skills that made a difference in landing his first professional position. He said he was interviewing for a general engineering position, but Terumo representatives were impressed with his interest in and ability to understand others’ needs — a rare trait among engineers, who tend to be inwardly focused — and steered him to the project management area.
Tyler’s entrepreneurial attitude also stemmed from his early years in the restaurants, before high school when he had a real job waiting tables. Jessica described how she would often give her young son quarters while she worked. To her, this was another way of keeping him busy while she worked, but Tyler had other ideas. One day when they arrived at Wok Inn, Tyler wanted to go into a neighboring store whose owner the family knew. He said, “Mommy, stop there — I want to get a job there; maybe he will pay me more.” He was 5 years old.
By age 8, Tyler would help bus tables and took it upon himself to teach teenage employees how to do it more efficiently. Several years later, when he was still too young to be an official employee, he jumped in to help take orders on a very busy Christmas Day at May Palace. He proudly announced to his mother that a table with several guests was all his.
Hours in the restaurants fed Tyler’s desire to learn about other people, solve problems and make things. It was in high school, though, that he “really got interested in the scientific process — the theory behind it — that was when I got super passionate about it.”
Tyler was animated when he talked about science classes at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale and described Laura French, his chemistry and physics teacher, as “one of the best teachers I ever had.” He said her classes and teaching style were pivotal in his choice of college majors and remembers the excitement of entire classes she devoted to students asking “any question we could come up with.”
The budding engineer who had fun building structures and learning about gear ratios with Legos had just as much fun peppering his high school science teacher with questions about black holes, relativity and quantum physics.
Tyler talked about the outstanding educational support he received in the Roaring Fork School District and the broader community, and said it is part of what made his education “top-notch.” That support went beyond academics, especially since life realities prevented both his parents from going to college and they did not know “the ins and outs of the system,” Tyler found that support invaluable.
He described a program that introduced college life and expectations to first-generation high school students. These multi-week camps gave him a taste of the academic rigor particularly characteristic of scientific fields of study.
Tyler said he is equally grateful for mentoring from Carbondale’s Herb Feinzig, also a first-generation American. Feinzig, who grew up in a diverse immigrant neighborhood in 1940s Brooklyn, has described himself as representative of the American dream and his work has helped others achieve that dream.
Jessica Ting added that many nice people in Carbondale and Glenwood Springs made her family’s life better. She talked about helpful business owners, customers who helped her with her English and police officers who really cared about them. Tyler agreed with her and described the openness they experienced as “unique in America.”
When Tyler graduated from Roaring Fork High, he was “very good at chemistry and decent at biology,” so was excited to find he could combine those two interests as a biochemistry major.
Tyler worked diligently and racked up extra credits in his first two years at CU, but after his sophomore year, he said he began asking himself what he could really do in biochemistry without additional years of graduate or professional school. He had already met several students in engineering programs and was “really excited by their projects and how intense it was … it was really appealing to me.”
As a junior he declared a second major in mechanical engineering and completed two bachelor’s degrees in six years. He said that even with two additional years, this path allowed him to start his career sooner than if he had entered a Ph.D. program or studied medicine.
“It has been really challenging and rigorous but also really, really rewarding,” he said.
Embarking on a career combining his people skills, scientific problem solving abilities and love of making things, Tyler reflected on his respect and gratitude for his parents’ hard work that built his foundation. Although his parents’ sale of May Palace last fall did not work out and they will be staying with the long hours for a while, he said he looks forward to their retirement.
Now that Tyler has come full circle with the “big dream,” he understands that there are many similar untold stories in the immigrant community. He sometimes wonders what his life would be if he was the one forced to quit school and emigrate to a new country, work exhausting hours and raise a child in an unfamiliar culture.
“That,” he said, “is crazy to imagine.”
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