Beadsie Woo ’86 on Being ‘First,’ Learning to Lead and Long-term Change

A woman speaks with two young students

Even when the numbers weren’t there yet, women like Beadsie Woo ’86 didn’t let that stop her from becoming a campus leader.

When Beadsie Woo ’86 arrived at Davidson College, women made up roughly one third of the student body, and she could count the number of Asian students on her fingers. Despite their minority status, women were stepping into leadership roles across campus, determined to effect change at Davidson.

Woo, who grew up in Raleigh, immediately sought ways to get involved in campus life. She ran for freshman class representative, winning the election despite her name being accidentally included in the runoff election. There were many student names on the initial ballot, and she wasn’t supposed to be among the ones in the runoff; it proved a happy accident, in the end. 

In the years that followed, she would serve as sophomore class representative and the SGA vice president, until finally becoming Davidson’s first woman and first Asian American SGA president–a “complex, yet rewarding” experience.

During Woo’s college years, women also held leadership roles on the Honor Council, the Patterson Court Leadership Council, The Davidsonian and Quips and Cranks. Although they made up a fraction of the student body, Davidson women demonstrated drive and racked up accomplishments. 

“Coeducation had been around for more than a decade at that point, and there was a lot of momentum,” said Woo. “As women, we were able to assert ourselves as leaders and really influence what was happening on campus. We’d sometimes hear from an alum who was unhappy that Davidson had gone co-ed, but both the faculty and my fellow students were very supportive of the change.”

While her role in student government helped prepare her as a leader, Woo found her true passion in Prof. Peter Hess’s economics classes, where she began to learn about domestic and international wealth disparities and reckon with their impact on the communities around her. 

Woo has since taken the leadership lessons she learned and her scholarly passion for economic justice and channeled them into a career focused on helping children and families thrive.

After Davidson, Woo earned a Ph.D. in economics at UNC Chapel Hill and now works as the director of family and youth financial stability at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which builds brighter futures for the nation's children and youth. Previous roles include a stint at the White House, working with various agencies on economic policy and criminal justice reform. 

“My job is about making sure that all young people and their families have what they need to thrive,” Woo said. “This includes educational and employment opportunities that lead to well-paying careers, access to affordable housing, health care, transportation, safe and vibrant communities and the financial freedom to pursue their goals.  The work is rooted in economic justice and well-being.

In her role as director, Woo helps support state, non-profit and civic organizations working in vulnerable communities across the nation. The ultimate goal: to set children up for brighter futures while providing their families with the resources they need to succeed. 

“Addressing conditions of poverty and systemic racism doesn’t happen overnight,” she said. “For me, it's about focusing on long-term change and seeing measurable differences over time."

Woo’s time at Davidson immersed her in a culture of stewardship and integrity, which she said shaped her into the person she is today. She continues to use the college’s Honor Code as a moral framework.

“The Honor Code is something that I still internalize,” said Woo. “It really sharpened my own integrity, my sense of respect for others and my ability to interact with others in ways that show our shared humanity.”

Throughout the years, she’s remained heavily involved in supporting Davidson’s growth, serving as a member of the Board of Trustees, the Board of Visitors and the Alumni Association Board, helping launch an affinity group for Asian alums and serving as a career mentor to current students. 

A group of students in black and white

While there are many parts of Davidson, like the Honor Code, that remain the same, much has changed since her student government days. The number of Asian students and women students on campus is much higher now, and the Davidson community has grown into a comparatively more inclusive place, in large part thanks to those who blazed trails of equity and inclusivity. 

Much like her work to combat economic inequalities, Woo knows the work of bringing positive change to Davidson can never be finished–it requires constant investment. 

“Davidson has come a long way since I was a student, but as an institution, we’ll never be done evolving to reflect the world as it is now,” she said. “I think it’s important for students to speak up about their passions and the issues that matter to them so that the college can be responsive. It’s a special community of mutual respect and trust that isn’t so common in the rest of the world.”

50+ Years of Coeducation

Davidson College will celebrate 50+ Years of Coeducation on campus November 3-5, 2023. The planning team will also host regional events and virtual opportunities in the weeks prior.

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