Nancy Chen '13

Nancy Chen Photo.jpg“Global Studies and Languages has equipped me with the tools necessary to work in a global company. [GSL] taught me how to view various situations through a multicultural lens, as well as the value of diversity.”

A first-generation Chinese American, Nancy Chen ‘13 received only tantalizing hints while growing up of her parents’ challenging lives in China.

“They selectively shared things they felt might benefit me,” she recalls. “For instance, to stop my picky eating, they told me they only ate meat once a month in China, and to make me less wasteful, my dad told me paper was so scarce when he was young that he reused a single sheet three times, first with pencil, then with pen, and a third time with a calligraphy brush.”

While she spoke Mandarin with her parents at home and attended a Chinese school on the weekends, Chen was focused on academics and, she says, “fitting in” as one of the few Asian students at her school in a Cleveland suburb. Although curious about her parents’ past and more broadly, the Chinese immigrant experience, she did not find opportunities for pursuing the subjects.

That changed after she came to MIT. Chen decided to educate herself, by taking a series of Global Studies and Language (GSL) courses on the history and culture of Chinese and other Asian immigrants.

“As a result of my GSL experiences, I’ve become much more interested and knowledgeable about the Asian and Chinese diasporas,” she says. “I’ve gotten to learn more about myself, family, and community.”

A double major in management science and political science, Chen initially intended to minor in Chinese, to keep her language skills fresh, but because she placed into the most advanced Chinese language class during freshman year, she effectively placed out of the minor. So she leaned into an Asian and Asian Diaspora Studies minor track, first enrolling in 21G.194 China in the News: The Untold Stories, taught by Jing Wang, S.C. Fang Professor of Chinese Language & Culture. 

“The course focused on the era my parents grew up in, 1950s to the present day,” she says. “We looked at posters and videos and read histories of the era, and all this information was entirely new to me.”

As much as she savored getting a sense of the world her parents knew in China, Chen also relished the experience of taking a GSL course. “I really liked the small class size and style of the department,” she says. “It was very intimate especially compared to my required core lecture classes with a couple hundred students.”

Spurred by friends’ recommendations, Chen next enrolled in 21G.043 Introduction to Asian American Studies: Historical and Contemporary Issues taught by Emma J. Teng, the T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations. It was a class that provoked “reflection and introspection,” says Chen. The very first assignment was to write about what the term “Asian American” means, its connotations and the stereotypes associated with the label. Most valuable to Chen were the stories, opinions and insights shared by classmates, who represented a range of Asian and non-Asian backgrounds.

 “We talked about the racism many Asians faced and continue to face even now,” recalls Chen. “While I was shielded from this growing up in the Midwest, I learned how diverse the Asian American experience can be.” It was the kind of class in which students feel comfortable enough to reveal things about themselves they might nowhere else, and form long-lasting bonds with each other, says Chen.

Springboarding from this class, Chen took another GSL course, 21G.075 The Global Chinese: Chinese Migration, 1567 - Present.  “What I really loved were the amazing immigration stories,” says Chen. “Before taking the class, when I thought of Chinese migration, I used to focus on the U.S. and Canada, but I learned that the Chinese have migrated to every country in the world for hundreds of years.”

There was, to her surprise and delight, “a universe of other Chinese immigration stories,” says Chen. One of them drew her attention in particular, and served as the basis for her class research project.

Chen had traveled to Melbourne, Australia in 2009 with her family. On a monument to Chinese Australians who had fought in World War II, her father spied a name, Tankey, that he suspected might be a version of Tan, the Fujian pronunciation of the name “Chen.”  He speculated there might be a connection to their own family, which had originally migrated from the southern Chinese coastal province of Fujian.

So for her GSL course, Chen decided to write a report on the history and journey of the Tankey family. She learned that they had lived on the same island where her mother grew up, and an hour from her father’s home village. “I was so impressed by the thought of someone getting on a boat more than 100 years ago, with no English, heading to some unknown land,” says Chen. “I also had a sense of pride in my own parents’ journey.”

Sparked by her GSL experiences, Chen brought her heightened awareness and curiosity about Asian diasporas to bear at home. She has been moved to learn the details of her parents’ lives in China and their subsequent trek to the U.S. Her father in particular suffered great hardship during the Cultural Revolution. His father, a librarian, was targeted by the Red Guards, so he and his siblings fled to the countryside. There he took care of livestock and studied in secret by candlelight. He managed to pass exams for college admission, and ultimately majored in chemical engineering—a discipline he was able to pursue, after overcoming many obstacles, in this country. 

Chen’s empathy and respect for immigrants extends beyond her own family. While at MIT, she worked as an intern in the office of then-Senator Scott Brown, helping process family reunification and student visas for immigrant constituents. And while at Brown Brothers Harriman, the Boston investment bank where she worked for four years after graduation, Chen tutored recent immigrants from Haiti and Sudan in high school in Cambridge. “I felt like I needed to do something after work that was not about me,” says Chen. 

Today, as she pursues an MBA from the Yale University School of Management, Chen finds that her desire to learn about people’s backgrounds helps her forge personal and professional connections. “I have a lot of international classmates, and they come here at the same age my parents came to the U.S., so I’m more aware of the challenges they face,” she says. “With friends and colleagues, I’ve discovered that you can develop trust and build bridges when you get a sense of their personal narratives.”