YSHS 2009 valedictorian, salutatorian—Village nurtured YSHS scholars
- Published: May 14, 2009
Growing up in Yellow Springs was easy and carefree, Olivia Chen said this week. Not having to worry about others labeling her or questioning her identity, she was able to focus on things that were more important and more fun, such as playing tennis, performing theater and developing a deep sense of curiosity about the natural sciences and cultural diversity. That path led her to explore her own background as a Chinese-American and then make the choice to spend the last six months of her senior year at Yellow Springs High School speaking Spanish in the Andes Mountains of Patagonia, Argentina.
For Chen, the valedictorian of the class of 2009, no stone can be left unturned.
Chen came to Yellow Springs from Indiana when she was five with her mother, Mei Chiang. She spent her youth riding around on her bike, doing aikido, participating in YS Kid’s Playhouse productions and playing the piano, recreational soccer and tennis with the “4 o’clock weekday crew.” In school, she found she had a particular aptitude and interest in math and science — perhaps seeded by her parents’ vocations in the biological, physical and chemical engineering fields.
“My parents, through example and teaching, developed my work ethic, as well as gave me a jump-start in many academic disciplines,” she said of her mother, step-father Chuck Taylor and father Wen Chen. “I have to thank Chuck and my mom Mei for all their help. They were always patient in answering my questions and really fostered the growth of my intellectual curiosity, with their own enthusiasm of learning.”
Chen also found support at school from creative teachers, such as Chris Rainey, who successfully explained the mathematical concept of polynomials and then told the class, “Now if you ever see a polynomial walking down the street, you’ll know what to do.” Her high school chemistry teacher Michelle Edwards turned a difficult subject into a refreshing experience, and her English teacher Elizabeth Lutz warmed her to a discipline she had hitherto disliked.
“Never dogmatic, authoritarian or superior, Ms. Lutz taught and learned with and from her students and allowed much needed freedom of expression,” she said.
As a sophomore, Chen accelerated her math and science skills through courses at Antioch College and further developed an interest in cultural studies through Spanish teacher Kathy Burkland’s stories of life in Colombia. The multicultural experiences ended up framing other activities Chen excelled at, such as tennis. She began playing at an early age because her parents enjoyed it.
“My family plays tennis kind of like it’s their job,” she said. “It’s a family activity.”
Later, Chen competed in United States Tennis Association tennis tournaments, worked “very hard to hang on the court with my brother, Alex,” and held the top position on the boys’ team all three years in high school. But what she ended up enjoying most, she said this week, was getting to play with such a culturally diverse team, with two players from Italy, one from Germany, and a mix of other ethnicities and of boys and girls.
Then in 2006, Chen took a trip to Taiwan with her mom, which further whetted her curiosity about other cultures and prompted her decision to go to Argentina to improve her Spanish and experience living in a more impoverished country.
In the town of Esquel, Argentina, a country replete with penguins, glaciers and jungles, Chen has gotten an even broader perspective about her own identity. Sitting around early one morning talking with her group of travelers who hailed from Austria, Germany, the Philippines, Thailand and Hawaii, one Argentine asked her, “¿Sos China no? Porqué hablas como un Yankee?” [You’re Chinese, right? Then why do you speak like a Yankee?]
“Like others during my visit to Taiwan, the man questioned the disconnect between my American accent and Asian appearance. A lot of people I meet are completely speechless and really confused by my ability to speak English,” she said. “I realized how much I disrupted the idea of a concrete national identity. I thought about stereotypes and identities, and at five o’clock in the morning, I achieved a little understanding of my identity.”
That night of laughing, singing and speaking through eight distinct languages about the experiences of people in such different places was an experience of intercultural integration that Chen will never forget, she said.
“I realized that…after that night, I would always carry with me a little piece of those other cultures, languages, and perspectives with me,” she said. “I’m not just Chinese or American. I have pieces of other cultures that are now a part of me and my identity, and there is no confusion in that.”
Chen has recently begun working with others to serve underprivileged youth in Esquel, offering English, math, dance and tennis lessons, a bread-making project, and a bracelet-making project to raise money for the children in the neighborhood of Baden.
Chen plans to return to Yellow Springs in July and attend school to study science and possibly medicine. She appreciates all of her role models, especially her mother, who has “taught me how to face challenges, always supported me inside and outside of school, and made sacrifices so that I could grow up in Yellow Springs like I wanted to…My mom is the strongest person I know, and she is one of my best friends.”
Though Chen has found sustenance and nurturing throughout her time in the village, she has aspirations after graduation to continue her growth in many other places.
“Yellow Springs will always be my home, but the world is huge and I have a lot I want to discover.”
Amelia Shaw loves people, and as salutatorian of the Yellow Springs High School class of 2009, what she values most about her youth is the openness and warmth of the people who made her feel part of the Yellow Springs and school communities. Her prior experience of living in a larger place, Shaw said in an interview last week, helped her to appreciate the intimate connections and relationships she has been able to make here in the village with those who have touched and influenced her in positive ways.
Very attached to her childhood friends in Beavercreek, Shaw resisted coming to Yellow Springs until she hit sixth grade, when her mother, Deborah Martin, brought her and her brother John to live here. From the first day of school, much to her surprise, her new classmates at Mills Lawn School welcomed her and brought her into their ranks as one of the class. She remembers being liked for who she was and feeling comfortable enough to say whatever was on her mind without fear of being judged.
That same open, interactive culture later showed up the classrooms of her favorite teachers at McKinney Middle School and YSHS and served to cultivate her interest in becoming a teacher, she said. She liked the tight-knit and high-contact atmosphere at McKinney that enabled her to get to know all the seventh- and eighth-grade students. The strength of those relationships created a foundation for many of her high school classes, which often turned into thought-provoking discussions about important issues and events, she said. She was especially inspired by her English classes with Beth Lutz.
“You come into the class and your brain switches to a different level, and you feel like no one’s embarrassed to talk or to speak their mind,” Shaw said. “We build off of every answer, and she pushes us to think beyond what’s there. It’s English, but it’s not just what’s on the page — you have to look beyond that.”
Last month for her senior project, Shaw chose to act on one of those issues she feels strongly about and initiated local participation in the National Day of Silence for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community’s struggle. She invited a speaker to address the high school student body, and the event drew out conflicting opinions, commentary and discussion that she believes could only happen because of the school’s atmosphere of trust.
“I just feel like our students are so open, and they’re willing to talk about sensitive topics like religion and homosexuality,” she said. “And even if we disagree, we still come out smiling and still being friends, and I don’t know if you can find that everywhere.”
She also needed help to organize the event, and she relied on her friends, teachers and administrators alike to help publicize it and rally the community in support of it. She realized then that the relationships she had built throughout high school had come back to serve her when she needed help.
Shaw has worked hard to succeed in school while participating in four years of soccer and orchestra, theater, Planting Peace, United Society, Project Charlie, and working as an assistant teacher for Sarah Lowe and as a pottery teacher in the summer. She can get uptight about doing everything and doing it all perfectly, she said. And she acknowledges the support she got from friends, teachers and guidance counselors, whom she has relied on to remind her of the importance of maintaining a balanced life.
She plans to attend Ohio University in the fall to study English and psychology, perhaps in pursuit of becoming a teacher or a therapist, she said. She would like to be involved with people and be able to help them the way she feels she has been helped by such a caring community of friends.
Amelia is the daughter of Randy Shaw.
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