By Bill McLean
Dr. Linda Liang stands in a cafeteria full of 40 visiting eighth-grade girls at Regina Dominican High School in Wilmette. She is the school’s new Leadership Institute Director, and the topics for her presentation range from confidence to leadership skills to risk-taking.
Liang, a Lake Forest resident, asks the rapt students to describe a risk any had taken recently.
A girl raises her hand and stands, Liang’s eyes and those of 39 others focusing on her, only on her.
“Standing here, today — this is a risk for me,” the girl says.
Liang beams and raises her arms, fists clenched, above her head, striking an emphatic touchdown pose, and then shouts, “Yeahhhhhhh!”
One of her favorite mantras is, “Loud and proud.”
Liang is loud and oh-so-proud of the brave visitor.
“I’m passionate, really passionate, about the issue of women and leadership,” Liang, a former teacher and school psychologist, says before ordering coffee, two eggs over-medium and hash browns at Egg Harbor Café in Lake Forest. “Research shows girls, in school, are generally afraid of making mistakes, of speaking up in class. They’re afraid to throw themselves out there, of coming across as arrogant. Our Leadership Institute allows our students to practice leadership skills.
“My goal, our Institute’s goal, is to provide skills that enhance a student’s ability to express herself and maximize her strengths and find her passion.”
The Leadership Institute at RDHS — in its fourth year, and the only gender-specific Catholic high school to offer such an opportunity — espouses four core areas of leadership: authentic self-confidence, compelling communication, joyful learning and global citizenship.
Liang mentions a sophomore at Regina Dominican High School. The sophomore wants to become a NASA scientist. The sophomore has already met two NASA scientists, thanks to the Leadership Institute. When the sophomore was a freshman, she completed a project about osteoporosis in spaceflight and how the research of the occurrence in space could prevent osteoporosis from occurring on Earth.
Liang’s eyes widen. Her head shakes. She is in awe of the teen’s resourcefulness and resolve. Proud, too.
“I love it at Regina, love seeing the girls’ excitement and willingness to explore all kinds of career fields,” Liang says. “Our students have a joy for life, and they’re nice, polite and helpful. Our student body is diverse [it speaks 11 languages] and energetic. It’s a warm bubble of warmth, the atmosphere, and I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to work with all of the school’s departments.”
Liang was 14 years old, a student at Our Lady of Lourdes School in Chicago, when she became fascinated with Lake Forest, specifically Edith Rockefeller McCormick’s estate, aka Villa Turicum. She read all about it in a Chicago Tribune Magazine piece, “The Long, Silent Death of Villa Turicum”. She viewed the estates nine years later.
“It’s another one of my passions, the history of Lake Forest,” says Liang, a Lake Forest Preservation Foundation Board Member and a Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Historical Society Program Manager for events. “I’ve always loved to read. I was very fortunate my mom [Joan] was a proponent of education. I remember walking a couple of blocks to a library, at the age of six, and returning home with seven little books in my arms.”
A widow who had been single for 25 years, Linda — who earned Bachelor of Science degrees in elementary education and psychology at Eastern Illinois University and her Ph. D in industrial/organization psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology — met Paul Liang, a stock trader, via a dating service, in 2001. He proposed to her on their first date. Linda said yes — three months later. Paul died way too young, in 2007. Linda later learned to ski in Europe and enrolled in the improv program at The Second City Theater in Chicago.
“When you’re grieving,” Linda says, “it’s good to get outside of your head, take some risks. I spent 15 days in Italy and two years performing on the stage where John Belushi had performed. Doing improv, sometimes you have to act like a five year-old, be a kid all over again.”
Lina Sergie Attar, a Syrian-American architect and writer from Aleppo, co-developed the Karam Foundation, which provides creative therapy, holistic wellness and entrepreneurship and technology programs for displaced Syrian children. A Regina Dominican student, Elizabeth Chidiac, recommended Attar speak to the student body and community. Liang, the daughter of Frank (a former third baseman for a semi-pro baseball team, the Hottentots), liked the student’s pitch. Attar spoke at RDHS on Nov. 8, presenting a brief history of Syria and the growing refugee crisis. There are ways for students in the Chicago area to assist Syrian refugees. Attar suggested the ways.
Students listened. Students got inspired. Students must have thought, I want to be like Lina Sergie Attar someday.
Liang was named Leadership Institute Director at RDHS on Sept. 19, the day before her birthday. She introduced herself to Regina Dominican’s student body in early October, wearing her blue Our Lady of Lourdes sweater. She must have looked comfortable in it, confident and ageless and proud of her alma mater and what she had become, a leader among future leaders.