Grace Yia-Hei Kao was born in Brooklyn, New York in the first year that her family emigrated from Taiwan. After moving shortly thereafter to Southern California, she and her older brother attended K-12 public schools first in Cerritos (a suburb of Los Angeles) and then in Huntington Beach (Orange County).
She was active in student government, cheerleading, and Model United Nations in high school and was named “Senior of the Year” upon graduation.
She credits her home church, Evangelical Formosan Church (EFC) of Orange County for nurturing her Christian faith and for cultivating in her a deep love and appreciation for Taiwanese culture.
Grace Kao attended Stanford University, studied abroad for one quarter at Oxford University, and graduated with honors with a joint major in philosophy and religious studies and a Masters degree in philosophy (BA: 1996, MA: 1997). Her undergraduate honors thesis, “The Ethical Status of Filial Duties: A Demythologization of ‘Filial Piety’ (孝, Hsiao) in the Classical Confucian Tradition,” won a Robert M. Golden Medal Award for Excellence in the Humanities and Creative Arts. She also became the inaugural recipient of the Howard M. Garfield Award for most “exemplifying the ethical values that are common to both the Jewish and Christian traditions.” She credits her undergraduate honors thesis advisor, Philip J. Ivanhoe, for planting in her the idea of pursuing a doctorate in philosophy and theology and thus setting in motion a heretofore uncontemplated future path.
At Harvard University, Grace Kao studied religion under the “theology and an allied field: philosophy” concentration (PhD: 2003). She graduated debt-free thanks to generous funding she received from Harvard (and later the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) and wrote her dissertation on human rights theory under the guidance of Francis Schüssler Fiorenza (chair & advisor), David Little, and Ronald F. Thiemann. She also honed her teaching skills through various teaching fellow opportunities and received two Certificates of Distinction in Teaching for her work in Michael Sandel’s legendary “Justice” course.
Building her Career & Family
Dr. Grace Kao began working as Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Women’s Studies at Virginia Tech after completing her doctorate. Her transition to full-time work was greatly aided by the mentorship of her senior colleague, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon–the person who not coincidentally also nominated her to win a 2007-2008 College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences (CLAHS) Certificate of Teaching Excellence.
In those formative years of professional and personal development, Dr. Kao came to identify explicitly as a feminist and straight ally to the LGBTQIA community in ways that she hadn’t before, became an active member of two churches (Grace Episcopal Church in Georgetown and Blacksburg Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), and also gave birth to her and her husband’s first son. Tragically, along with her colleagues and students, she also lived through a horrific life-changing experience: the shootings of April 16, 2007 that claimed 33 lives.
After six years of working at Virginia Tech, Dr. Kao accepted a position in 2009 as Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology and Associate Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University. She now works exclusively with graduate students and also co-directs the Center for Sexuality, Gender, and Religion at CST.
She gave birth to her second son during her first year on the job. In 2010-2011, she received CST’s first ever Faculty Teaching Award by vote from the student body. The following year, Dr. Kao published her first book, Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011). A few months later, she became the first woman of Asian American heritage to receive tenure at her institution. In 2015, she co-edited (with Ilsup Ahn) a volume on Asian American Christian Ethics (Baylor University Press)–the first book in the subfield that her colleagues and her inaugurated.
Family fun at the Birch Aquarium (Sep 2011)
In her free time, Grace Kao enjoys playing with her boys, shopping at thrift stores, reading for leisure, taking Zumba classes, looking at beautiful things on Pinterest, and blogging at feminismandreligion.com. She dreams of resuming scuba diving and traveling abroad when her kids are older.
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To reach Dr. Grace Kao, contact her by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).