Lillian and Irving Rosenthal Fund

Est. 2022 by Yang Ni and Xiaoqing Li for an annual scholarship to a student at Gateway Community College and a student at Southern Connecticut State University.

Yang Ni and Xiaoqing with Lillian and the late Irving Rosenthal of New Haven
Yang Ni and Xiaoqing with Lillian and the late Irving Rosenthal in New Haven in 1988.

When Yang Ni and Xiaoqing Li immigrated to the U.S. from China as young students, they were welcomed into the home of Lillian and Irving Rosenthal. To honor their lifelong friends, Li and Ni established a charitable fund that will provide an annual scholarship to a student at Gateway Community College and another to a student at Southern Connecticut State University.

When Yang Ni and Xiaoqing Li arrived in the United States in 1987 to pursue degrees at Southern Connecticut State University, they had two suitcases and $300 in their pockets.

But they also had two good friends in Lillian and the late Irving Rosenthal of New Haven. The Rosenthals opened their home to Yang and Xiaoqing, inviting them to stay for a year while they completed their master’s degrees.

“They were generous and so kind,” Yang said. “They taught us so much about life in America.”

The families had met when Yang and Xiaoqing were graduate students at Huanghe University in Zhengzhou, China. He was in the American Studies program, and she studied American Literature. Irving was a visiting professor from Gateway Community College and Lillian, a librarian, was there to help the university develop its library. Yang worked closely with Irving. as a “class monitor.”

Yang and Xiaoqing Ni
Yang and Xiaoqing Ni

“It was a great period in our lives,” Lillian said. “These young people were so eager to learn about the United States. My husband was there to teach American Studies, which was something completely new for China. They had never offered courses that had to do with the culture of places other than China. And until that time, students were taught by rote. But the professors from the United States had discussions with their students.”

The Rosenthals and other visiting professors from Southern Connecticut University encouraged the couple to come to the U.S. to continue their education. And they did, arriving at JFK airport “very nervous,” wondering how their lives would unfold in this new and unfamiliar country.

The Rosenthals were there to greet them and brought them to New Haven, stopping for something to eat on the way home.

“It was the first time we ever had a salad. We just looked and wondered `what is this?’” Xiaoqing quipped.

“At the time in China, every vegetable was cooked; we had never seen this,” Yang said. “It was the start of an education – in every sense of the word.”

At the time, the Rosenthals were renting a house on Everit Street in New Haven. The Rosenthals lived on the first floor and Yang and Xiaoqing were on the third.

“They made their own breakfast and lunch, but we always had dinner together,” Lillian said. “We took turns cooking. They cooked delicious Chinese meals and I’d cook chicken or meatloaf or spaghetti and every night they came down to our apartment. It was a beautiful time.”

Ni's and Rosenthals
Yang Ni's law school graduation at Syracuse University.

Yang and Xiaoqing said they loved conversing with the Rosenthals. “They taught us about American society, about American universities, and from them we learned about the people,” Yang said. “Irving was a true gentleman and very humorous. Lillian never ever forgets our birthdays.”

“We know their children and their grandchildren,” Xiaoqing said. “They have treated us like we are part of their family and even today we are still in touch.”

Lillian said she and her family are also close to Yang and Xiaoqing’s daughter Amy Ni, who is now a doctor in California. “The roots of their family and ours are entwined,” Lillian said.

To honor their lifelong friends, Yang and Xiaoqing have established the Lillian and Irving Rosenthal Fund at the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. The fund will provide one annual scholarship to a student at Gateway Community College and another to a student at Southern Connecticut State University.

They wanted to pay tribute to the kindness of the Rosenthals.

After earning their master’s degrees from Southern in one year, they went to Syracuse University where they received scholarships and teaching assistantships to pursue Ph.D.’s, his in sociology and hers in American History. But after taking law courses, Yang was captivated and chose to earn a law degree. Xiaoqing, intrigued by the suddenly exploding computer industry and concerned about lack of teaching jobs in history, switched to a master’s program in computer information management.

“We survived because of scholarships, and our teaching assistantships all the way through, even with my law degree,” Yang said.

Along the way, the couple developed their own philosophy: “First learn, then earn, then return by giving back,” Yang said.

Xiaoqing was recruited and hired by Intel as a senior system analyst, and the couple relocated to Folsom, California. Yang practiced law and in 2000, started his own business handling regulatory compliance for pharmaceutical and chemical companies. After building successful careers across nearly three decades, they were in a position to help students who need financial help just as they once did.

“Our education was important to us from all angles, not just the legal and computer skills we gained, but also the humanities and social sciences we spent years studying, which really changed our perspectives about what American society is all about,” Yang said. “In our courses we learned a lot about why democracy is so important to America but also to the whole world.”

They hope the scholarships help the recipients chart their own exciting courses in life. Lillian, Yang and Xiaoqing said they would like the scholarships to be awarded to students who come from immigrant families “for whom paying for school is not an easy thing,” Lillian added.

Lillian and Irving understood what it was like to have to work while also trying to attain a college education. “We were both part of immigrant families,” she said. “His parents came from Poland and mine from the Ukraine, and they struggled all their life working very, very hard. So, my husband I had to do college on our own. We went to college at night and worked during the day. We understood what it meant to work hard, and we recognized that it was important to help people in the world if you could. That was what we were about.”

“Lillian is a very caring human being and Irving was too, very generous with their time and effort in helping others,” Yang said. “They emphasized education – all their kids went to good universities – and they have always been interested in helping people from different backgrounds especially people with limited resources. We want to do the same.”