Investing in Intellectual Freedom

The concept of freedom is at the core of the Hertz Foundation, embodied in the fellowships that encourage PhD students to take risks and think in daring new directions.

“As a Hertz Fellow, I had total freedom to choose what I wanted to study,” said Sherman Chan, who, with his wife, Irma Velasquez, is a consistent donor to the foundation. With the support of his fellowship, Chan had the freedom to explore various directions in electrical engineering while at MIT, eventually pursuing research on control systems. His thesis, “Small Signal Control of Multiterminal DC/AC Power Systems,” won the Hertz Thesis Prize in 1981.

In 1986, he founded ASPEN Inc., a Silicon Valley company that develops engineering software for electric utilities, where he is still president today. The work his company does is unrelated to his fellowship-funded research and, for him, that underscores the benefits of freedom in education. “Your education isn’t there to teach you to do something, but to train your way of thinking,” he said.

“Funding intellectual exploration and expression is what makes the Hertz Fellowships special,” Chan said, and is ultimately why he and Velasquez support the foundation, including through the Chan-Velasquez Fellowship. They join a growing number of Hertz donors who support the foundation in three important ways: annual gifts, major gifts of fellowship support, and a bequest intention through their estate. “We didn’t consciously plan it that way, but one way of giving led to another,” Chan said.

The foundation’s mission and focus have motivated their generosity. “The Hertz Foundation’s philosophy fits into our way of thinking,” Chan said. “Do we educate people to be functional people, to do things, or do we set them up to think for themselves?”

“Any organization, any endeavor that supports free-thinking and allowing people to think for themselves is something that we are really behind.”
– Irma Velasquez

As immigrants—Chan came from China at age 13 and Velasquez from El Salvador at age 9—both grew up with challenges, including financial and language barriers. “Even though we’re very different, from opposite sides of the world, our experiences were very similar,” Velasquez said. “We struggled in very similar ways with language, with being part of a community, with being understood. We’re both also family-oriented.”

Today, they focus on creating opportunities for others, through their support of the foundation and through social entrepreneurship. After their son, Aaron, was diagnosed with autism, Velasquez founded a school for autistic children, Wings Learning Center, in 2001. Currently, Chan and Velasquez are working on creating an assisted living community where Aaron, who is now 25, can continue to live safely and comfortably when they’re gone.

Supporting their son is their top priority, Velasquez said, but after that, they intend to donate all of their assets to charitable organizations, including the Hertz Foundation, a decision shaped by their immigrant experiences.

“We’re very grateful for the opportunities we’ve had here,” she said. “There’s an appreciation that comes from going back to our original countries and seeing how people grew up and how life developed for them. There is a difference. There’s a freedom in this country that we sometimes take for granted.

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