Maya Lin was born in Athens, Ohio, on October 5, 1959. In 1949, her parents fled Communism in China and came to the United States. In 1958, they moved to Athens, home of Ohio University, where they were professors. Her mother wrote poetry and taught literature; her father was a ceramics artist and became Dean of the College of Fine Arts.


As a child, Maya Lin liked to hike, read, watch birds, work in her father’s ceramics studio, and build miniature towns. She loved to think and solve problems. In high school, she was an excellent math student who took college-level courses and worked at McDonald’s. She thought she was kind of nerdy because she never dated or wore makeup.


Maya went to Yale University to study architecture. While she was 21 and still a student, she entered a blind contest to submit a design for the new Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. According to contest rules, the memorial had to fit in with the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, include the names of all the dead and missing from the war, and refrain from making political statements. Maya’s simple but elegant design features a pair of two-hundred-foot-long polished black granite walls. The monument is V-shaped, with one side pointing to the Lincoln Memorial and the other to the Washington Monument. The wall has the carved names of 58,195 men and women who were killed or missing in the war. They are listed according to the dates the soldiers were reported killed or missing instead of in alphabetical order. Her design was chosen over 1,441 others. Maya believes her design would not have been chosen if the judges had known she was Chinese-American. Some people harassed her after her family background and age became known.


Today, Maya continues to work on sculpture and architecture. Some of her other projects include: the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama; the Wave Field at the University of Michigan; and the Confluence Project along the Columbia and Snake rivers in Washington and Oregon. She has also written several books and is interested in sustainable energy use. In 2009, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama.