“Stacy, finish your food!” her dad exclaims in Cantonese, the dominant tongue in this North Side Chicago household of Asian diaspora elders and first-generation American offspring.
Stacy’s story begins far from Chicago, with a scared, bedraggled 16-year-old boy huddled on a fishing boat filled with refugees fleeing the Vietnam War. Staying with his family meant certain conscription into the military, so he determined to escape and later send for his relatives. As a teen with no resources or means, he pretended he belonged to another family on the boat, escaping notice for his inability to pay the smugglers’ exorbitant fee.
For a week, he subsisted in terribly cramped quarters on meager rations – a single water bottle and a small roll of crackers. On the day the seaborne journey concluded, someone from the receiving party distributed 24 packs of ramen to the boat filled with refugees. One individual promptly and greedily consumed ten of the packs – raw – by himself. This sudden influx of calories and sodium shocked his digestive system, accustomed to starvation and dehydration, into a violent response. He “didn’t make it,” in the matter-of-fact parlance of this young boy’s memories.
But the 16 year-old did. And he took a lifetime of insights and trauma from that miserable, fear-filled week at sea.
After a year or so in a Taiwanese refugee camp, some U.S. soldiers sponsored his immigration to America, and he made his way to Glenbrook South High School, in Chicago’s northern suburbs. In the 60’s, Glenbrook (along with most U.S. Schools) lacked anything resembling an ESL (“English as a second-language”) program or services, so he was thrown right into a standard schedule, although he knew little to no English.
Working nights at IHOP and living in a cramped basement apartment with other displaced immigrants, he eked out a meager existence and somehow managed to finish high school. Ultimately, his drive pushed him to acquire sufficient English language mastery to provide decent employment options.
Now, that 16-year-old boy is a middle-aged man who’s been employed by United Airlines for over 30 years. Married to a woman he met through mutual friends early on in his time with United, through mutual friends while on vacation in China. His two children were both born and raised in Chicago, and now attend highly-selective higher education institutions in the Eastern U.S., paid for largely through their each earning prestigious, Posse Foundation scholarships to their respective colleges. To Stacy, 2015 alumna of Von Steuben H.S. and GLP, and a rising senior at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, he’s simply “Dad.”
Until tasked with exploring her family’s immigrant history by a school assignment, Stacy knew simply that her father, always a man of few words, expected her to finish the food provided for her. The word provided carries weight in Stacy’s experience, because the cost of this provision is so readily evident. Long before taking time to share lengthy backstories and experiences, Stacy’s parents instilled values of responsibility, self-sacrifice, and education in her and her younger sister, Diana.
Their mother forewent her own educational ambitions when she came to the States and had her two daughters. Stacy’s mother spent these early years of parenting trying desperately to comprehend a land and a language that were completely unknown to her. Without any family or connections in the U.S., she turned from her plans to attend Truman College for English as a Second Language (ESL) coursework. Alone with two young children in a tiny apartment just off Argyle street, she got through the 90’s the way much of Chicago did – by becoming a huge Bulls fan. Her hopes and confidence soared along with Michael Jordan, but she still to this day experiences the ramifications of having limited education and speaking accent-laden English.
As Stacy watched her parents’ sacrifices so that she and Diana could look forward to greater opportunities, she developed her own deeply held sense of responsibility. Never a confident test-taker, Stacy imagines that an upbringing in China’s educational system with its intense, high-stakes testing would have severely limited her own options. Instead, she thrived with opportunities to explore, grow, and develop her own interests in problem-solving, building, and applying scientific principles.
Von Steuben Metro Science Center High School was the place that Stacy’s knack for STEM – and engineering in particular – became undeniably evident. Science Fair projects saw Stacy exploring the energy potential of various forms of biodiesel production, integrating her passions for environmental sustainability, chemical processes, and engineering design. One trusted educator greeted Stacy regularly at 6 a.m. to open the school’s doors, providing time for Stacy to delve deeper into whatever project she was exploring at the moment, and sharing his own expertise when she had questions.
Joining the Global Leaders Program before her junior year provided a key supplement to Stacy’s positive high school experience. Projects within GLP further solidified the connection between real-world issues and STEM skills. She credits one particular project on water filtration and equitable access to resources for expanding her understanding of what types of problems she could address through application of scientific principles and processes.
Throughout her undergraduate studies at Trinity, Stacy has continued to seek out experiential learning opportunities within the sciences, and also in extracurricular pursuits. Wrestling with uncertainty about whether she was “Asian enough” to feel truly welcomed in the college’s Asian Student Association pushed her to better understand different elements of her own identity. Forays with her Trinity classmates into Hartford’s investment-starved urban core left her peers a bit “shook.,” which contrasted markedly with how much the environment reminded Stacy of familiar settings back home in Chicago. Studying abroad in Trinidad and experiencing a culture that prioritized rest and social connection forced her to examine the role stress has played in her own experiences and education. Entering senior year of college, Stacy has resolved to spend much less time and energy “stressed and pressed,” as her younger sister often teasingly accuses her of looking. All throughout, she’s continued designing innovative solutions and devices to address needs in our world today. Her rootedness in STEM’s applicability to the problems that matter most to her has been crucial to her persistence in classrooms and other contexts where she finds her own background and experiences – as a young woman, as a first generation college student, as a first generation American, and more – drastically underrepresented.
Now, as she prepares to embark on her final year of undergrad, Stacy understands better than ever who she is and what ways she’s uniquely equipped to solve problems that she observes. She also knows why it matters so much to her father that she finish her food at the dinner table, and she appreciates how communicating regularly with her parents and continuing to push herself academically helps honor their own sacrifices. Stacy talks often of being the oldest in her family, and how important it is that she saves her parents from having to worry about her in any way. As she walks across the stage in spring 2019 as the first college graduate in her family, they’ll all be thinking how far they are indeed from a certain little fishing boat puttering away with its stern turned to the Vietnam War.