The Early Years

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.


Higher Education

Seal of Stanford UniversityGrace 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 best exemplifying those humane ethical values common to the world’s diverse religious traditions through scholarship and/or service. She credits her undergraduate honors thesis advisor, Philip J. Ivanhoe, for planting in her the idea of pursuing a doctorate in theology and philosophy and thus setting in motion a heretofore uncontemplated future path.

Seal of Harvard UniversityAt Harvard University, Grace Kao studied religion under the “theology and an allied field: philosophy” program (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 

Seal of Virginia TechDr. 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 development and personal growth, Dr. Kao came to identify explicitly as a feminist and straight ally to the LGBTQIA community in deeper ways that she had previously, became an active member of two churches (Grace Episcopal Church in Georgetown (Washington, D.C.) and Blacksburg Presbyterian Church (Blacksburg, VA), 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 TechSeal of Claremont School of Theology, 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 co-directs CST’s Center for Sexuality, Gender, and Religion.

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 book, Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011). A few months later, she became the first Asian American woman to receive tenure at her institution. In 2015, she co-edited with Ilsup Ahn Asian American Christian Ethics (Baylor University Press)–the first book in the subfield that her colleagues and her inaugurated. In 2017, she won the Fisher Faculty Teaching Award again by student vote.


In her free time, Grace Kao enjoys playing with her boys, reading for leisure, taking cardio dance classes, and blogging at Feminism and Religion. She dreams of resuming scuba diving and traveling abroad when her kids grow older.

Christmas 2016

  *           *            *           *            *

Continue reading about Dr. Grace Kao’s scholarship, courses, teaching philosophy, and FAQs for students

To reach Dr. Grace Kao, contact her by e-mail (gkao@cst.edu).