Soetoro-Ng was born Maya Kasandra Soetoro in Saint Carolus Hospital, a Roman Catholic hospital, in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Indonesian businessman Lolo Soetoro and American cultural anthropologist Ann Dunham. Her elder half-brother is the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama. She has said she was named after American poet Maya Angelou.
Soetoro-Ng and Obama spent several years together in Indonesia and in Hawaii before her mother decided to return to Indonesia with her. After her parents divorced in 1980, her father remarried. From this marriage, Soetoro-Ng has another half-brother, Yusuf Aji Soetoro (b. 1981), and a half-sister, Rahayu Nurmaida Soetoro (b. 1984).
While living in Indonesia, Soetoro-Ng was home-schooled by her mother and then attended Jakarta International School from 1981 to 1984. Like Obama, Soetoro-Ng returned to Hawaii and attended the private Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii, graduating in 1988.
Soetoro-Ng attended Barnard College in Manhattan, New York. She received an M.A. in secondary language studies and an M.A. in Secondary Education from New York University and a PhD in international comparative education from the University of Hawaii in 2006.
Soetoro-Ng has often spoken warmly about her relationship with her older half-brother, which she says has remained strong even though they have often lived far apart. As adults, they have often celebrated Christmas in Hawaii, and savor the time they spend with their families together.
Soetoro-Ng is currently the Director of Community Outreach and Service Learning at the Spark M. Matsunaga Institute for Peace & Conflict Resolution, which is based in the College of Social Sciences at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Dr. Soetoro-Ng teaches courses on: Peace Education; the History of Peace Movements; and Leadership for Social Change. She also oversees externships for undergraduates who are majoring or minoring in Peace Studies and coordinates the Institute's community and global service learning programs.
Soetoro-Ng was an Assistant Professor at the Institute for Teacher Education at the University of Hawai'i College of Education and continues to do some consulting work, promoting international exchange and understanding, in partnership with the East West Center. She authored a children's book, Ladder to the Moon, that was inspired by her mother and her daughter, Suhaila; it was published in 2011. She is working on a book about peace education and a young adult novel entitled Yellowood.
Soetoro-Ng was a high-school history teacher at La Pietra: Hawaii School for Girls and the Education Laboratory School, both in Honolulu, Hawaii. She previously taught and developed curriculum at The Learning Project, an alternative public middle school in New York City, from 1996–2000.
In 2009, Soetoro-Ng helped bring her mother's dissertation to publication in the form of the book Surviving against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia. She wrote a foreword to the book and participated in its launch at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting.
Soetoro-Ng's doctoral research at the University of Hawaii at Manoa focused on Multicultural and International Education. She examined the use of narrative to develop more complex understandings of identity in multicultural classrooms. She promoted the learning of Social Studies—history and current events—from multiple perspectives. She has developed and implemented peace education curricula in public high schools and for K-12 teachers in Colleges of Education. With partner Kerrie Urosevich, she conducts professional development workshops to share the Ceeds of Peace (ceedsofpeace.org) with educators and families. She co-founded a nonprofit Our Public School (ourpublicschool.org) that works to build bridges between schools and the communities that surround them.
In May 2007, Soetoro-Ng announced that she would assist Obama in his campaign for presidency, and took two months off to campaign for him. She participated in the 2008 Democratic National Convention, where she spoke briefly about growing up with her brother and brought an Asian-American presence to the stage.
Soetoro-Ng also spoke briefly about the Obama administration's accomplishments at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 4, 2012, sharing the podium with First Lady Michelle Obama's older brother, former Oregon State University men's basketball team head coach, Craig Robinson.
In 2003, Maya Soetoro married Konrad Ng (Simplified Chinese: 吴加儒), a Chinese Canadian from Burlington, Ontario, Canada. Ng, who is of Malaysian Chinese descent, is now also a US citizen. He was the Director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii's Academy of Creative Media. He is now the Executive Director of the Doris Duke Shangri La Center for Islamic Arts and Culture in Hawaii in Honolulu, Hawaii. They have two daughters, Suhaila and Savita.
Soetoro-Ng has described herself as "philosophically Buddhist". She speaks Indonesian, Spanish, and English.