In 2021, the AAPI First-Year Fellowship was created and implemented by the Advisor to Students of Asian Descent, Karen Shih, and Jenna Hua ’22 to dedicate a space and community for first-year students who identify as Asian American or Pacific Islander to explore AAPI history, oppression and influences while reflecting on their different identities and experiences. Throughout the program, students have the opportunity to participate in rich conversation and thoughtful activities with each other upperclass students, and AAPI-identifying professors.
“Over the years, I [have seen] transformations, meaning, when coming to Wellesley, some students don’t necessarily understand their Asian American identity, or the internalized racism they have experienced,” Shih said. “But a lot of them, once they start thinking about these things at Wellesley, they start seeing how powerful it is to make friends with other Asian students and share experiences with each other. So, I wanted to create a space that students could come together as a community and share their experiences, especially from the beginning.”
Isabella Tjan ’24, one of the Co-Coordinators for the program, mentioned that the Fellowship is a transformative experience full of genuine and deep connections and new understandings and perspectives.
“I think it does four key things for first-years,” Tjan said. “[It] fosters AAPI community with other first-years, exposes students to new AAPI cultures, allows students to share their stories and experiences, and connects them to AAPI faculty and their courses at Wellesley.”
In fact, Sumaiyea Uddin ’24, the other Co-Coordinator, explained the range of events, conversations, and activities that first-years participate in to challenge, encourage themselves and gain more knowledge about different cultures and experiences.
“There’s several opportunities fellows leave this program with,” Uddin said. “We intentionally make this an opportunity to reflect on personal experiences especially as related to one’s AAPI racial identity. We also have weekly guest lecturers, typically current professors, that are willing to continue conversations with students and serve as a resource to them. We go over a lot of things such as history, queerness and gender identity, mental health stigma, civic engagement, relationships and a number of other topics too.”
Noting all that the program dedicates to educating and empowering students, fellow Chelsea Cheng ’27 stated that one of her reasons for applying to the Fellowship was to find a community she could comfortably communicate and relate with.
“I joined the AAPI First-Year Fellowship to find a safe space to discuss relevant issues within the AAPI community and get to know the other fellows and their backgrounds and experiences,” Cheng said.
Vanessa Chen ’27 also wanted to join the program to be involved in a safe environment in which she could discuss open and deep-ended topics and issues.
“I applied to the program with the hopes of meeting more AAPI individuals at Wellesley,” Chen said. “This was an opportunity for me to be in a small group and use the provided space to tackle deep conversations and topics regarding AAPI history and identity.”
By participating in the program, Chen finds that she is building a community she can rely on even outside of the weekly meetings, and hopes to continue exploring specific topics even after the Fellowship ends.
“I think I am gaining a stronger support system within the Fellowship. The people I’ve grown closer to are people I see often and outside of the Fellowship,” Chen said. “I also hope that after the program ends, I feel more comfortable discussing the topics we’ve covered with other people, and exploring said topics on my own.”
Similarly, Cheng notes that, despite the differences between her life back in California and at Wellesley, the Fellowship is a way for her to surround herself in a comfortable and relatable setting in which she feels supported and not judged.
“Being able to discuss difficult topics with other first-year students who identify as an AAPI individual has been relieving,” Cheng said. “Coming to Wellesley from a predominantly Asian community, it was a bit of a culture shock since my peers all come from very different backgrounds. However, being able to be in a space where I know I am understood and being around people who I can genuinely relate to is a relief.”
With the program being a place for students to come to each week to tackle various topics and support one another positively, Tjan hopes that the first-years acknowledge the importance of community and continue their exploration into AAPI cultures, identities and topics.
“I hope that the first-years appreciate the nuances of all pan-Asian cultures, understand their identities better and feel empowered to share what they’ve learned. I want them to be able to be inclusive people at Wellesley that engage in true pan-Asian advocacy as well as willing to take action,” Tjan said. “I hope that they also find the space to celebrate their identities and to forge connections with other AAPI first-year students with whom they can celebrate. This program is meant to equip AAPI first-years at Wellesley with better tools to engage in AAPI issues, discuss nuances of the AAPI diaspora and identify areas of growth at Wellesley and beyond.”
For Shih, she hopes that the fellows develop a more transformative understanding of their identity not only in the AAPI community, but elsewhere too, and are able to create and share a similar experience and environment for others.
“I hope they just feel much more grounded with their Asian American identity, or identity just in general, as well as being okay with being vulnerable in their community,” Shih said. “I hope that they carry that mindset everywhere, and then someday and somewhere, create a similar space for other people.”