Civic engagement is a pretty fancy phrase. I surely didn’t know what it meant in high school. You may have heard it thrown around at info sessions, on the Tufts website, or from current students and alumni. But what does this phrase mean? Essentially, it’s any individual or group activity addressing issues of public concern with the intent to create meaningful change. It could be through volunteering, national service, voting, and more.
In high school, I volunteered every weekend at my local Red Cross food pantry. Originally I did it because a friend of mine needed someone who could help translate for Vietnamese clients. I came in a bit shy and was ready to get it over with. From my first day, I could never forget the names nor the kindness of the people who ran the food pantry and the clients who came through the doors. I eventually started going weekly until it was time for me to graduate. 3 years flew by just like that. Despite grumbling about the fact that I had to wake up at 6am on a Saturday, I would talk my dad’s ear off after about the people that I got to speak with that day. I met someone who grew up a couple streets away from me in Vietnam, someone whose daughter attended my high school, and someone who made me a paper crane out of gratitude! These are still some of my fondest memories even today.
When I got to Tufts freshman year, I was swamped with the transition to college and the academic rigor. I honestly didn’t do much. It wasn’t until sophomore year that I began to tap back into my desire to give back to my communities. I joined a club called Tufts United for Immigrant Justice (UIJ) which aims to address the inequities and obstacles faced by undocumented immigrants to develop a sustainable grassroots movement led by both undocumented people and allies. I helped plan a conference, marched in a music festival for activist street bands (HONK), learned about the oppressive and racist systems that surround us, and developed an awareness of how deportation and having undocumented status affect an individual, their family, and their community. This was a big step for me because talking about immigration and deportation was always a sensitive topic in my family. When we found out someone in our community or extended family got deported, my parents would tell me to never speak about it to anyone else.
Well, I never listened to my parents fully! Because last summer via the Tisch Summer Fellows program at Tufts, I interned at Asian American Resource Workshop (AARW). AARW is an organization that works towards racial, social, and economic justice in the pan-Asian community. I helped provide financial relief for low-income families affected by deportation, helped low-income families struggling with food insecurity, and supported AARW’s anti-Southeast Asian deportation legal work. Not only was my Vietnamese challenged, my understanding of what meaningful work was, too. For the longest time, my idea of meaningful work was giving people who needed help as many things as possible. Via my internship, I learned that I have to listen to the people who ask for help. I have to understand that my role is to work with people, not for them. This meant that if people didn’t want something, I have to oblige because it’s their wish. It is not right for me to assume that they need something or impede on their wants. I learned what it truly meant to do meaningful work that wasn’t performative or selfish. I’m still in the beginning of my long journey of activism and I’m glad that Tufts was able to help me along with this journey.