As the people of this nation continue to grapple with living in a diverse society that has historically discriminated against racial and ethnic minorities, women, and LGBTQ+ people, the University of Richmond campus reflects this national climate. In this five-part series, The Collegian seeks to tell a few of the stories of non-majority students. These stories are by no means the only ones that need to be told, nor do they represent the experiences of all historically marginalized groups on campus.
Sarah Wang has always felt like a “third-culture kid.”
She has an American passport, but she’s not just American. She's the daughter of two Chinese immigrants, but she’s not fully Chinese, either. Wang has spent her life navigating what this dichotomy means.
“I think with a lot of people who have immigrant parents it’s definitely the feeling of, ‘I’m not enough of this,’” Wang said.
The “third culture” Wang belonged to was a unique blend of her two cultures, which created another culture in itself, she said.
Wang, a senior biology major with a business administration minor, was raised in Nashville, Tennessee, by her father, a cardiologist who did research at Vanderbilt University, and her mother, who Wang said was the closest family member she had left in the United States.
As an only child, Wang has always fought hard to establish a community of friends that could stand in for family.
“I think in my own way, friendships had to mean more,” she said. “I didn’t really have family, so friends and community replaced that."
When Wang arrived at the University of Richmond in August 2014, she found it difficult to immediately establish a strong support system like the one she had built in high school. Her close-knit group of high school friends were similar culturally, Wang said, but in college she met people from many different backgrounds.
“It is harder to find the things that I had in common with these people,” Wang said. “Whether it be humor, whether it be perspective on diversity and how you see the world.”
One of Wang’s first friends at UR was Timaj Yusuf, a senior who is also the child of immigrant parents. The two met in their first-year living-learning community, Moore International.
Yusuf had initially been turned off by what she perceived as Wang’s close-mindedness. During orientation, Yusuf recalls the two disagreeing over the subject of sexual assault and whether or not what someone was wearing could influence whether he or she are assaulted.
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“I’m Muslim,” Yusuf said. “You can be wearing a hijab and fully covered and it could still happen, and I remember she just disagreed with me.”
Yusuf and Wang started having long, deep conversations about topics ranging from campus culture to politics to the inherent tension of being the child of immigrant parents.
“I feel like what she was saying wasn’t really how she felt," Yusuf said. "I feel it was more when you’re constantly taught that, you internalize it.”
Since high school, Wang said she had found that she connected best with people of color, because she could relate to their multi-cultural backgrounds.
“Growing up in Nashville, I had a lot of instances where I just felt like it was like me against white people, so then of course I felt super comfortable with people of color,” Wang said. “It’s a different cultural community between people of color and white people.”
This tension is particularly enhanced in UR's business school, Wang said.
“I think there’s a very strong correlation between people who are in Greek life,” Wang said. “The majority of them are white people, and then there’s people of color.”
Every time she walks into the business school, Wang said she feels as though she must put on a persona where she is funny and intelligent all of the time.
“I’ve had to try to go against that stereotype of being the Asian student who has no personality and has no social tact and is not funny,” Wang said.
Wang has also experienced the pressures of being expected to excel academically because of the stereotype of the “smart Asian-American," she said.
“That was really harmful to me because there were classes that I failed here and I was like, what was I doing, you know, cause I’m Asian-American," she said. "I’m supposed to be smart.”
Yusuf has been a steady support system for Wang when dealing with these pressures, Wang said.
“Everyone is different, as cliche as that sounds,” Yusuf said. “I would just tell her, you know, don’t be too hard on yourself, and that you are you.”
In order to combat these hurtful stereotypes, Wang has developed a mentality of not letting anything affect her.
“I’ve always kind of accepted that a lot of scenarios in my life are like that,” she said. “Something that has gotten me through my time here is to put on this kind of armor and act like, though you do feel it, you still need to just go forth and charge on.”
When reflecting back on the past four years spent at UR, Wang said that it has been the relationships she has formed and the community she has built for herself that have made her feel more comfortable and welcome at UR.
Heather Hogg, costume director in the department of theatre and dance, first met Wang when Wang reached out in August 2014, looking for a job.
It was Wang’s exuberant and enthusiastically worded email that pushed Hogg to hire Wang, despite the fact that Wang had no previous experience in costume design. Wang has worked in the costume shop ever since.
The costume shop is a safe space for Wang, Hogg said.
“She came in one day and she took a deep breath and said, ‘Oh my happy place,’” Hogg said. “It seemed like she had a rough day. But she’s always so positive, so interested in other people.”
Wang is in the midst of completing an independent study with Hogg, in which Wang is making a garment designed to honor her Asian heritage, Hogg said.
For Wang, the conversations and experiences she has had at UR stand out most from the past four years.
“The conversations that I’ve had about identity, race, other facets of life — those will stick with me maybe forever,” Wang said.
This is the second installment of a five-part series, to be published one per day this week. Read part I here.
Contact news editor Jocelyn Grzeszczak at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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