Student Spotlight: 4th Year Shares How She ‘Found Her Niche’
Fourth year Physiological Sciences major, and USAC Community Service Commissioner, Cynthia Wong describes her journey and how she found her “niche” at UCLA.
-Written By Cynthia Wong
As I sit back and reflect on the past three years, one quarter, and six weeks of my college career, I cannot deny that, if given the opportunity, I would have done so many things differently. I would have told my first-year self to be more honest; to recognize, far earlier, that I had neither interest nor talent for scientific research. I would have encouraged my second-year self to be more fearless; to muster the confidence to explore my passions even when they pulled me one direction then another. I would have urged my third-year self to not be complacent with averageness or satisfied with experiencing life on the sidelines because the only real obstacle holding me back was my willingness to take the plunge.But one decision I have never and will never regret, was perhaps the most important of all. Because despite the many mistakes I have made in my time here, the best choice I ever made was deciding to come to UCLA.
My decision came as a shock to my parents. As Vietnamese refugees who fled Saigon in the late 1970s, abruptly faced with a world of unknowns, an unwavering belief in the importance of family was thoroughly engrained in their minds. Family became the only constant for their new lives in America. Unsurprisingly, my three brothers and I were raised with similar convictions. Even now, despite the various places we have ventured to over the past few years, we still find ourselves gravitating back to the comforts of home. But three years ago, with the opportunity to stay close to home and attend UC Berkeley, or move to La Jolla with my brother at UCSD, my parents could not understand why I was so adamant about UCLA. For me, however, from the moment I stepped onto campus. I opened myself up to the people and culture, knowing I could never look back.
When my parents immigrated to this country, they believed a college education was necessary to create a better life than ever could have been achieved in Vietnam. Education for my family was the difference between a lifetime of struggle and a comfortable, middle class existence. I remember asking my father if he always knew he wanted to become an engineer. He shared, “as immigrants who were still adapting to this foreign place and learning this new language, they simply did not ‘know better’”. Obtaining degrees in Electrical Engineering or Computer Science became the standard because they promised a wealth of career opportunities after graduation. If he could do it all again? He would have gone into teaching and become a professor.
I believe my parents’ support of my university choice was motivated by their own experiences. My promise to my parents was if this school was where I wanted to be, then I would take advantage of the opportunities it offered to the fullest extent. Because not doing so would not only be a disservice to the countless students who did not have the freedom to choose, but also to my parents who sacrificed everything to give me the opportunity to choose my future.
I cannot attest to whether I have lived up to that promise, but I have used those words to guide me for the past three years.
“Service may not be for everyone but everyone has the
capacity to serve.”
Whether by chance or by fate, I stumbled upon Project Working for Immigrant Literacy Development (WILD) during fall quarter of my first year. For the past 28 years, Project WILD has provided English tutorial services and mentorship to first and second generation students in Rosemead. What captured my heart from the beginning was the immediate connection I made with all my tutees, many of whom were also the children of Chinese-Vietnamese immigrants who left the country during the Vietnam War. Although I saw so much of myself in my students, our childhoods were also vastly different. I was never told higher education was not an option. I never had socioeconomic hardship and language barriers prevent me from getting the educational support I needed at home. I never felt that my needs were swept aside because of a flawed and impersonal school system. Project WILD sought to fill that educational void by providing several hours of free English tutoring every Saturday for students in the area. Since my start in Project WILD, we have made momentous strides forward: improving the quality of our curriculum, growing to over 50 volunteers and 150 service recipients, and even expanding to a second site in mid-City Los Angeles. My time in Project WILD has taught me many lessons – the value in understanding my communities, the importance of strong leadership – but perhaps more importantly, how to be compassionate and give back through service.
Through my involvements with Project WILD, I also learned more about our university. While the act of coordinating a weekly tutoring site seemed relatively simple, in actuality, providing this service to the community required an intricate system and a wealth of resources. As I continued as director of Project WILD, I eventually found myself involved with the Community Service Commission (CSC). As the largest student-run, student-initiated service organization in the nation, CSC stemmed from a rich history of social activism and which, over the course of 50 years, has grown into a real force to be reckoned with in regards to volunteerism at the collegiate level. Housed within the commission’s umbrella is Project WILD in addition to 32 other service organizations ranging from health and education to hunger, homelessness, and special needs. CSC provides these 33 projects with the institutional guidance, resources, and support of the university in order to serve over 12,000 service recipients in a single year.
I never knew where my involvements would lead or imagined that I would ever have the honor of leading this enormous commission. But now, half way through my term as the Community Service Commissioner, I can say with assurance that I have finally gotten the hang of things. This opportunity has shaped my experience at UCLA more than any other aspect of my college career. I have discovered along the way that the path to discovering our passions, or achieving our definition of success, is not a single line connecting Point A to Point B. Despite the pressures many college students are facing I honestly do not believe we need to know who we want to be or what we want to do at this point in our lives. Our sole responsibility is to make the most of our short time at UCLA, to make some unexpected decisions, to embrace our mistakes, and to continue find a place – our niche – within the diverse and dynamic campus community. My niche is service, a small but real way I have been able to thank my parents for their sacrifices and give back to the communities that fostered my development as a civically-engaged individual. Service may not be for everyone but everyone has the capacity to serve. Giving back can take many forms, it is just a matter of finding what you inspires you along the way.