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Giving Back and Telling Stories

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Through the Tisch Summer Fellows program, Tenzin Chokki, A17, is spending her summer at The Welcome Project in her adopted hometown of Somerville.


Many of us feel an obligation and a desire to ‘give back’ to our communities; to empower the people and places that helped shape us, even if it’s in a way wholly unconnected to our own experiences. Rarely do we get a chance to give back directly and concretely by contributing to an organization that had a hand in our development and helped set us on a path to success.

Tenzin Chokki, A17, is enjoying one such opportunity. Through the Tisch Summer Fellowship program, she is spending her summer at The Welcome Project, an organization that serves the needs of immigrant communities in her adopted hometown of Somerville. In just over a year, she has gone from a participant in one of its youth programs to a valued contributor who is working with the next generation of immigrant youth in the city.

Chokki, whose family emigrated from India and settled in Somerville five years ago, first got involved with The Welcome Project as a high school senior, when she and some friends learned about the Liaison Interpreters Program of Somerville (LIPS). A cornerstone of The Welcome Project’s youth programming, LIPS offers bilingual youth the chance to develop a valuable skill while helping their families and other non-English-speaking members of the community break through the language barrier and engage actively in local affairs.

“We would do some interpretations at community meetings, or the high school during PTA,” says Chokki, who interpreted between English and Tibetan, her native tongue. Like all LIPS participants, she also learned that there is more to interpreting than being bilingual. “We learned what goes into being an interpreter: being confidential and respecting the individuals you’re providing interpretation for.”

Chokki also enjoyed an unexpected but welcome benefit of her involvement with The Welcome Project, one that may have helped define where she is today. At LIPS, she worked under the tutelage of Tisch Scholar Verónica Rosario, A15, whose year-long project was to aid in recruitment and training for the interpretation program. In addition to those duties, Rosario served as a mentor to the young interpreters as they looked forward to the possibilities of higher education.

“As seniors who were preparing to look for colleges and apply to colleges, she would tell us what to look for,” says Chokki. “We heard all sorts of information about college, but this was a personal contact who was telling us her first-hand experience.” For Chokki, who played her high school tennis games at Tufts and aspired to become a Jumbo, the information and advice was especially meaningful coming from an older peer who had accomplished what she wanted to achieve.

As a Tufts student, Chokki has been involved with a variety of organizations and activities that evidence her many interests. She is the underclassmen representative in the Minority Association of Pre-Health Students, is active in the First Generation Student Council, and has worked with Love146, an organization that fights child exploitation and trafficking. She wanted to spend the summer working on one of her other passions: exploring culture through storytelling.

“My freshman year I got to meet a lot of new friends and new people. What really, not just surprised me, but deeply touched me, was how people would ask about me—how I came from India, and my history— and how interested they were,” says Chokki. “I got to learn about people, too, through their stories, and I think it’s just amazing how we each have our own story and we each tell it in different ways.”

This intersection between stories and culture is at the center of Chokki’s summer fellowship with The Welcome Project’s Summer Camp/Digital Storytelling program. The two-week camp, which will be held in July, brings together diverse immigrant youth to explore their backgrounds through field trips and projects. Building on last year’s camp, which focused on learning about different cultures around the world, Chokki has helped to envision a theme for this year, “My Home is the World,” which resonates deeply with her own experiences.

“For me, my idea of home is kind of weird because I was born in India but I’m a Tibetan. For someone like me, home is very intangible: sometimes it’s a feeling, sometimes it’s a place, sometimes it’s physical,” she says. “Home isn’t just one place for me. Growing up in India, but in a Tibetan community, and then coming here, home is like everywhere.”

Chokki hopes that, as a complement to their understanding and appreciation of different cultures, focusing on the meaning of ‘home’ will foster a shared sense of community that these youth will carry with them long after the summer camp is over.

“The idea is that we all come from different places and we have differences,” says Chokki. “We might practice different religions and have different personalities, but at the same time we are all the same. We are human, we live in this world, and we should care for each other and respect each other.”