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Husband and 8-year-old son will collect the doctoral degree for their late wife and mother at Rutgers-Camden commencement

The pair will cross the stage during the Rutgers-Camden commencement Monday and collect Sunny Reed’s doctoral degree in childhood studies.

Liam Reed, 8, and Jason Reed at their home in Cherry Hill, N.J. They will walk across the stage at Rutgers-Camden's commencement on Monday to receive Sunny Reed's doctoral degree. Sunny Reed was Liam's mother and Jason's wife. She died of cancer in March.
Liam Reed, 8, and Jason Reed at their home in Cherry Hill, N.J. They will walk across the stage at Rutgers-Camden's commencement on Monday to receive Sunny Reed's doctoral degree. Sunny Reed was Liam's mother and Jason's wife. She died of cancer in March.Read moreMonica Herndon / Staff Photographer

Jason Reed had already planned to take off Monday. He knew it would be a tough weekend for both himself and his 8-year-old son, the first Mother’s Day without her.

“At bare minimum I knew that Liam and I would do something to honor Sunny in some way,” he said of his wife and Liam’s mom.

As it turns out, they will honor her perhaps in the way she would have most wanted.

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The pair will cross the stage during the Rutgers-Camden commencement Monday and collect Sunny Reed’s doctoral degree in childhood studies.

She hadn’t finished her dissertation when she died of cancer in March at age 38, but the faculty who worked with her decided she was such an outstanding student and was so close to her goal that she deserved it anyway.

Her scholarly work focused on transracial adoption and specifically how it impacted adopted children. It was a topic she knew firsthand, being a native Korean who was adopted by a white family in northern New Jersey in 1985 at roughly 9 months old. Her fraught experience growing up in a largely white community never left her, and she wanted to make the world a better place for children growing up like she did.

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“Sunny was unequivocally the most motivated student I’ve worked with,” said Lauren Silver, an associate professor of childhood studies at Rutgers-Camden and director of graduate studies for the department. “She was so passionate about bringing justice to adoptees. She would have changed our fields.”

Carol Singley, a professor of English emerita, said Reed was adept at combining being a scholar with being an activist.

“She spoke from personal experience and people listened to her and were helped by her,” Singley said.

A week ago, Jason Reed wrote about that in a post on Facebook. He said he hadn’t completed much of an obituary when his wife died and thought friends would want to know more, especially as he planned to get her degree.

“She worked for years to understand the trauma she experienced, but more importantly, she worked to help others,” wrote Reed, 39, who works for a technology infrastructure and cybersecurity company.

Her life became her work

Growing up, Sunny Reed was faced with the narrative that she should be grateful she was adopted and given a life in the United States, her husband said.

She wrote about it in her blog.

“When I was adopted more than three decades ago, there was a persisting postwar mentality that our neighbors to the East were backward, third-world, and in need of American intervention,” she wrote. “This attitude pervaded the original marketing materials for Korean adoption and helped satisfy America’s growing nationalism — after all, what God-fearing American citizen didn’t want to offer their home to a ‘Korean waif’?”

Her husband recalled how she talked about the challenge of growing up in a largely white town. She was picked on in school, and when she ran for class president, someone wrote a racial slur on her poster. But it was more than that.

When her parents said, “This is my daughter,” and she was the only Asian girl in their white family, there was always a certain kind of feedback.

“It’s all the reaction you get with that,” he said.

She eventually connected with her biological family in Korea, though her mother had already died, Reed said. Her adoptive mother died before the couple had even met, he said.

Plunging into her studies

The couple quickly found they had a lot to say to each other when they first met on in 2012. Within six months of dating, he won a trip to Hawaii and off they went.

At the time, she was working in digital marketing and had a bachelor’s in art history from the College of New Jersey and a master’s of library and information systems from Drexel.

Her name was actually spelled Suni, but her husband said she hated that people pronounced it “Sooni.” So she went by Sunny, which suited her positive, energetic disposition.

She loved to play video games, do puzzles, dance and read, her husband said. One of her favorite things was bringing the book close to her nose and flipping the pages; she loved the smell of the paper and thought each book had its own distinctive scent.

They married in 2014, and soon had Liam. She became a stay-at-home mom, but still did some writing on the side. Around 2016, she got more interested in scholarly work on transracial adoption.

Even before she applied to the doctoral program, Reed was known in her field, Silver, her professor, said. Her articles were published and she had conducted interviews, in addition to writing her blog. Silver recalled meeting her five or six years ago when Reed had come to sit in on one of her classes.

Reed, Silver said, was especially interested in childhood studies because the field centers on children and so much scholarship on adoption focuses on the those who adopt, Silver said. Adoption often is framed as being a gift and beneficial to both parties, but ignores the trauma of being taken from a home country and thrust into a new culture.

“The voices of adoptees were often missing,” Silver said.

In 2019, Reed was excited about starting the doctoral program, but then cancer struck. She discovered a lump in her breast and had a double mastectomy, as well as rounds of radiation and chemotherapy.

“The whole time that she was out, she would reach out periodically and express how much she was looking forward to starting the program,” Silver said. “The Ph.D. program was a light that helped her get through that period.”

In 2020, she plunged into her studies at Rutgers, amidst a worldwide pandemic. It was a heady experience. She had read Singley’s book, Adopting America: Childhood, Kinship and National Identity in Literature, years earlier and now she would be studying under the scholar.

“It was like meeting her heroes and then working with them,” her husband recalled.

Reed especially liked Rutgers’ commitment to diversity and inclusion, which was very important to her, he said. Her passion for inclusion was one of the reasons she ran, though unsuccessfully, for the Cherry Hill School Board last year before she got sick again.

“If elected, I would work tirelessly for all students in the district, while giving voice and providing access to those who often feel left out,” Sunny Reed said in an October interview.

Cancer’s return

Reed always knew there was a chance the cancer could return. She remained on medications aimed at preventing that.

But in November, she suffered a seizure, and doctors discovered she had brain cancer. Even while in treatment, she remained in touch with her professors.

“She wanted more than anything to get back to her studies,” Silver said.

With her degree, she had hoped to teach and speak at events to help families better understand adoption so that children wouldn’t have to bear such a large burden. Now, that wouldn’t be possible.

The degree, finally earned

Soon after his wife died, Reed reached out to Rutgers-Camden, and a conversation quickly began on how the school could honor her.

It’s not the first time that Rutgers-Camden has awarded a degree posthumously, and it happens at other colleges, too. John Griffin, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, said that in Reed’s case, it was an easy decision.

The school asked her husband how he would like to receive the degree. He could have picked it up or had it mailed, or he could walk across the stage, as his wife would have done.

She often talked about how much the degree meant to her, Reed said. She even looked forward to being called Dr. Reed, he said.

“It just felt like I’d be doing her a disservice if I didn’t walk up on stage and receive it,” he said. “That work was near and dear to Sunny’s heart and it was a big part of who she was.”

Liam, a second grader, said he has a bit of stage fright, but was happy that his mom would get her degree. In the family’s Cherry Hill living room hung a photo of the three of them at Morris Arboretum, taken last Mother’s Day.

“Mama was really fun,” Liam said. “She played with me a lot.”

On Monday, Reed will be among five students getting doctoral degrees in childhood studies and 1,824 graduates overall, including undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students.

Only it will be her husband who will be handed the coveted degree.

He’ll be wearing sunglasses, he said, “so nobody can see me crying.”