The three years Peggy Cherng, ’71, spent in Corvallis powering through a four-year program in applied mathematics are a bit of a blur. A rainy, green blur.
“Mostly I remember rain, green and studying. It was raining a lot in Oregon. And Oregon was very green. And I believe one time I got poison oak,” said Cherng, the co-CEO of Panda Express. The company operates more than 2,300 restaurants and brings in $3 billion in annual sales. “But it is important to me that you know that I am grateful for the education I got at Oregon State.
“I did have fun sometimes. But I was working on my studies.”
Cherng has been twice honored as an alumna — in 2000 as an Alumni Fellow of the College of Science and in 2012 by being invited to give the College of Business Dean’s Distinguished Lecture.
Born Peggy Tsiang in Burma (now Myanmar), she moved with her family to China as a child. They eventually settled in Hong Kong. She did well in school, especially in math, and was eager to go to college.
“Most of the people in Hong Kong get their higher education overseas,” she said.
She ended up enrolling at tiny Baker University in Kansas in 1967. It didn’t take long for her and fellow Chinese student Andrew Cherng to notice one another.
The two became friends and fell in love. They planned to finish their undergraduate work as quickly as possible so they could go to graduate school together and get married. In the meantime, she decided to transfer to Oregon State for her bachelor’s degree in math.
“I didn’t have any friends there, so that wasn’t why,” she said. “It was a scholarship. I just went.”
At Oregon State, she loaded up on challenging classes. And for the next three years, the couple maintained their Kansas-to-Oregon relationship in an era with no Facetime, no email and no free calling plans.
“I don’t think we could afford to talk much,” she said. “At that time a long- distance call was quite expensive.”
Once she got her OSU degree, Peggy and Andrew reunited at the University of Missouri, where he earned a master’s degree in applied mathematics in 1972 before moving to the Los Angeles area to help his cousin run a Chinese restaurant. In 1973 Andrew and his father, a chef, opened a full-service Chinese restaurant of their own, Panda Inn, in Pasadena.
Peggy, meanwhile, quickly finished a master’s degree in computer science at University of Missouri and stayed on to earn a doctorate in electrical engineering in late 1974. She was a rising star, specializing in complex pattern recognition and predictive analytics programming. Her projects included making CAT scans more useful and developing complex battle simulators for the Navy.
The Cherngs married in 1975 and soon started a family, which grew to include three daughters — Andrea, Nicole and Michelle. While Peggy did cutting-edge programming and engineering for McDonnell Douglas and other companies, Andrew and his father worked against fierce competition to make Panda Inn the best Chinese restaurant in the area. Though weekdays saw her doing demanding work in the defense industry, Peggy worked at the restaurant on weekends.
“I was there in a limited capacity at first,” she said, laughing at the memory. “I could only do hosting, and I was not a good hostess. Not very efficient. I couldn’t make cocktail drinks.”