Wallace Loh arrived in Iowa by himself, a 15-year-old with 200 dollars in his pocket and not too many more English words in his vocabulary.
It was 1961 and he knew only that an American education promised opportunities that weren't available in Peru, where his father was a diplomat, or in his native China, where the Communist Party had claimed his family's fortune.
"I was too awestruck to worry about how I would get by," he recalled.
Loh did more than get by. He immediately started college and earned a psychology degree from Grinnell College and a law degree from Yale. He began a steady rise through academia and university administration that brought him back to Iowa, where he became provost of that state's flagship university in 2008. On Tuesday morning, he was named the next president of the University of Maryland, College Park.
He considers his job a calling. "The American dream still lives," he said in reflecting on his story. "I want to make sure the opportunities are available to the next generation that were available to me."
Loh, 65, was appointed by the university system's Board of Regents after a six-month search to replace C.D. Mote Jr., who in 12 years led the university to new plateaus of academic prestige, research funding and student interest. He was chosen from among three finalists and will start his $450,000-a-year job on Nov. 1, with Provost Nariman Farvardin serving as interim president until he arrives.
Chancellor William E. Kirwan said Loh is the perfect modern president given his multinational background, his experience in state politics in Washington and his work leading a comparably sized university through budget and other crises.
"It's hard to imagine any president can match his extreme range of experiences," Kirwan said. "I've watched him several times now talk about his experience with education, and people are just transfixed, because he speaks with such conviction based on his personal story. It moves people."
Colleagues and university officials described Loh as an optimistic man who sees chances to innovate even in dire circumstances, such as 20 percent budget cuts and a flood that severely damaged 18 academic buildings in Iowa.
"This guy's got a great attitude; it's infectious," said former state Sen. Francis X. Kelly, a member of the Board of Regents. "I hire people all the time, and that's the first thing I look for. I want someone who looks at problems and sees opportunities to solve them. We're in unprecedented times economically, and it's going to take tremendous ingenuity to take the university to the next level. This guy can do it."
But Loh is also unafraid to ruffle feathers, which he did by aggressively diversifying the University of Washington School of Law in the early 1990s and by pushing for more online education as a top adviser to Washington Gov. Gary Locke later that decade.
"In leadership positions, one cannot try to please everyone," Loh said.
When Mote announced his retirement, system leaders said they would seek a replacement who would keep the university on its upward trajectory rather than make sweeping changes. Loh pledged to do that.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," he said. "And Maryland doesn't need to be fixed."
Loh said his main task will be to keep the university rolling forward despite budget constraints that might never fully loosen. He will join a kindred spirit in Kirwan, who talks relentlessly about efforts to make the system more efficient.
"I don't know anyone who is more creative or more trusted in higher education," Loh said of his new boss. "Working with him was a major, major draw."
Loh said it's too early to talk about specific solutions but said redesigning curriculum and integrating technology are ways to educate more students without substantially increasing the faculty.
Mote had a tempestuous relationship with civic leaders in College Park, and Loh will have to work with them as the university pursues an ambitious redevelopment of its East Campus. He will also inherit a student body that bristled at faculty and staff cuts made last year in response to statewide budget reductions.
Loh promised to be open with students and listen to their concerns as he weighs difficult budget decisions. Student body president Steve Glickman said Loh had already e-mailed him to say he was looking forward to hearing student perspectives on the university.
"I was very impressed that he showed that kind of interest right away," Glickman said. "I always like to meet people in person but on paper, he's a very interesting and appealing choice."
Loh will need to hire a new athletic director after Deborah Yow left for N.C. State earlier this year. That new leader will face immediate questions about football coach Ralph Friedgen, whose hold on his job was considered tenuous after last season.