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Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life

Finding a Home in Chinatown

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Tisch Scholar Michael Wang is working to address pressing issues in Chinatown, a community that is shaping his Tufts experience in deeply personal ways.

A street in Boston's Chinatown

One of the core principles of Tufts University is engagement with our host communities. Through robust, reciprocal partnerships with local governments and community organizations in Somerville, Medford, and Boston’s Chinatown—many developed or facilitated through Tisch College—students acquire valuable hands-on experience, address pressing social needs, and further strengthen the ties between these communities and the University.

In some cases, students’ work in our host communities results in a deeper connection that goes far beyond a specific class or service project. That has been the case for Tisch Scholar Michael Wang, A17, who midway through his sophomore year at the University has found a passion working in Chinatown and formed a profound bond with the community that is shaping his Tufts experience.

“Chinatown has really become… I was going to say like a second home, but I actually find it more of a home than Wisconsin, because I didn’t really grow up in an Asian American community,” says Wang. “I really love it. I’m the happiest when I’m down in Chinatown just hanging out with people. And I want to be able to spend as much time down there as possible.”

Contributing to a Community

Wang first got to know Chinatown while volunteering for several organizations during his first year at Tufts, and he began to develop both affinity and concern for a community that faces myriad socioeconomic issues. “If you look at the Asian population in Chinatown, it has really declined because of gentrifying and immigration,” he says. “It’s slowly getting shrunk down a lot. So I worry that in 20-30 years Chinatown won’t even exist anymore.”

He also saw the deep and impressive network of groups and individuals that share a deep commitment to creating a better community.

“It’s really great to see that there are so many organizations that don’t all have the exact same goal, but they’re all working for the people in the community; I find that amazing,” says Wang. “There are also a lot of young people in Chinatown, so a lot of the organizations are focused on youth empowerment, which is great.”

Those community organizations opened the door for Wang to become even more involved in the community. As a Tisch Scholar, this year he is partnering with the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center on a series of projects to support Chinatown families, such as strengthening the connections between local childcare providers.

“We want to create a link between the different directors of childcare centers around Chinatown to assess what they have, what they would want, and create a coalition,” says Wang, who created and administered a comprehensive survey for that purpose. “The main thing we’re trying to get out of it is being able to share resources between the different providers.”

Wang is also collaborating on a study of high school students in Josiah Quincy Upper School. In the Spring, he hopes to begin work, alongside Tufts Assistant Professor of Public Health Susan Koch-Wesser, on a community health needs assessment of the Asian immigrant population in Chinatown. According to Wang, the study would make a significant contribution to the very limited literature on the health needs of non-English speakers in the area.

Connecting His Experiences

The research would also further connect Wang’s work in Chinatown with his academic pursuits as a Community Health and American Studies major, with minors in Asian American Studies and Chinese.

“All my majors are closely connected in everything I do,” he says. “Just being in a community like Chinatown… in one course we’ll talk about environmental racism and I see all of that when I’m there; we’ll talk about immigrant populations and difficulties to access healthcare, and there are a lot of undocumented immigrants in Chinatown.”

Wang was reminded of that last point by his recent work canvassing for political candidates as a volunteer for the Chinese Progressive Association. When he knocked on doors and talked to Chinatown residents about voting, he realized that many could not do so because they were not citizens. It was yet another example of how his time in Chinatown has fostered learning and growth in ways that can only be found outside of the classroom.

“When my parents first came to the U.S. they were undocumented, but by the time I was born they had their papers,” says Wang. “So it’s interesting because, through my classes and through my work, I’m able to reflect a lot on my own life and my family. A lot of the experiences I’m seeing now, my parents probably went through before I was born and even when I was really young, and are still going through now in a lot of respects. So it’s very personal, and I feel like everything is closely tied together.”