By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
Since 1995, the Northwest Asian Weekly has been organizing its Summer Youth Leadership Program (SYLP), aimed at empowering Asian American high school students.
The three-week-all-expenses-paid program is designed to teach Asian youth leadership, identity, and community-building skills. This year, high school students from all over the Puget Sound area met at the Massive Monkees Studio in Chinatown/International District (ID) for the program. There were Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Hmong, and Indian students. It was actually the first time we had a Hmong student sign up.
Our speakers’ list included the Who’s Who of the Asian community. Some of the speakers were Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu, Seattle Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim, Sen. Bob Hasegawa, Prof. Connie So, KING TV anchor Lori Matsukawa, Prof. Andrew Cho, professor speaker Vanna Novak, Linh Thai, Tom Im of Interim, and more. Through the speakers, the students learned about achieving success, Asian American history, and some of the critical issues facing Asian Americans and the ID today.
It’s unusual for a media company to do this kind of leadership program every year, but we have nurtured hundreds and hundreds of youth to be future leaders over the decades. It’s our way of giving back and supporting the community.
The fruits of our labor often don’t reveal themselves until months or years later, when the youth are older and mature enough to have applied their learning in life, schools, and the community. Serendipitously, this year, our rewards came earlier — on the program’s last day.
Why the ID
In the past, most students were from Seattle-area high schools. This year, the majority of the students came from the suburbs. Most knew little of the positive attributes of the ID. Some students confessed that they signed up initially because they heard the food was good, and the program was free. Courtesy of the NW Asian Weekly Foundation, we hired a coordinator to work with the students, including taking them to lunch at different ID restaurants every day.
But beyond delicious lunches at restaurants and bubble tea, the youth learned that the ID is the center of the Asian community and its identity. With the presence of the Wing Luke Asian Museum, Tsue Chong Noodle Co., and Danny Woo Garden, there is much history, resources, and cultural richness in our community for them to explore.
Even though some former students were raised in Chinatown, they have told me how the program had opened their eyes about the ID. A simple thing such as dining in a restaurant was a luxury to some inner-city kids.
“Growing up in Chinatown, we never dined in restaurants,” one said. “But SYLP brought me inside some of the big restaurants in Chinatown. I had never seen such a big restaurant then.”
It’s not just speeches for the entire three weeks. Students visited KING TV, the University of Washington, and the Wing. They organized a talent show for the seniors at the Legacy House, playing the piano and violin, reciting poems, singing and dancing, and performing magic tricks. Each group also designed a special project to show and tell to the whole group, including producing a yearbook of their activities. The students loved to hang out at bubble tea places at the end of the day.
On graduation night
Parents have never spoken at any graduation dinners in the past 22 years. So I was surprised that they did this year.
Patricia Wei, a parent, stood up. “Every day, my son would come home and tell me what he had learned or done at the SYLP,” she said. “I didn’t know about many of those things my son talked about. So I am learning, too.”
Wow, what the parent said had blown my mind away! That was one of the most powerful and inspiring moments for me at the dinner. I had no clue that SYLP would have such an impact on two generations. The American-born son is teaching his immigrant parent about Seattle’s Asian community!
Another parent from San Francisco, originally, echoed the same sentiments. Through her daughter, she learned about Seattle’s Asian American history and roots. SYLP has brought the children and parents closer together because of their willingness to share and learn from one another. That goes beyond my wildest dreams.
If more immigrant parents were more interested in what their children are doing in school, it would enhance their communication and bonding opportunities, and thus, dismantle the generation and language gap between them. If the students were willing to share their experiences with their parents, it would empower the young ones to develop an important role as teachers and bridge-builders. We can teach one another.
We just have to be open-minded about sharing and learning. That’s a part of leadership.
A closer relationship between parents and kids would eliminate misunderstandings and miscommunication between the two generations, especially problems at schools.
Instantly, I felt my sacrifices have been worthwhile. Yes, it is tough to run two newspapers, in print and online full-time, plus doing the SYLP for over two decades, never skipping any year.
The art of doing it twice
In the past, I discouraged former students from coming back. We had no intention of setting up an auditing program for the students. I was concerned that they just wanted to goof around, and to some extent, there were also budgetary reasons.
A few years ago, some alum convinced me to let them come back and mentor new kids.
“Coming back as a mentor was very rewarding because not only do you help foster and participate in discussions regarding challenges Asians face, you also witness the tremendous growth in the participants,” said Derek Wei, a mentor this year. “As a mentor, you’re able to guide and help participants strengthen their skill and potential by pushing them past their comfort zones.”
“The most valuable lesson I’ve taken away is to not be afraid to reach out and speak up,” he added. “Whether it’s reaching out to speakers or voicing your ideas and opinions. Having the courage to do so always reaps good results.”
Several alums returned from the past two years to mentor students in projects and other assignments this year.
Kyle Wong, now a UW student, said, “SYLP is the best decision I have made in my life. When I am with you (new students), I discover more about myself and you bring out the best in me.”
Wow, the best decision! It’s so sweet to hear the students admit that what their parents made them do — participating in the program — was the right thing to do.
Friends and not enemies
Between the mentors and mentees, a few students found out that their respective parents are restaurant owners in the ID and thus, competitors. Some of the parents don’t even talk to one another.
It doesn’t matter to the younger generation, though.
When I asked four guys whose parents are restaurateurs for a photo, they were enthusiastic. We realized that they share one crucial journey together — the SYLP experience — and they are buddies today and will be in the future. Seeing that elicited another beautiful emotion from me at the dinner.
The students were impressive this year, according to Tim Louie, owner of the Tsue Chong Noodle Co. “I can see it during their visit. They asked a lot of questions about the business, and they were interactive with me.”
Other speakers also noticed that the students were special, said Tracey Wong, SYLP coordinator and former alum. It has come full circle. Wong developed these young leaders, having applied what she had learned in 2007.
“When I was a participant of SYLP, we got to spend a lot of time in the Chinatown/ID — touring the neighborhood, having many Asian American leaders come to speak, eating at a lot of the local restaurants, and drinking boba,” said Wong. “Throughout this whole program, such a bond was built between my peers and my connection to this neighborhood, and I wanted the same for my students and even more as the program coordinator for this year.”
Wong added, “To see the students blossom into proud and confident leaders and to see all of these life-long friendships built in Chinatown/ID was the ultimate reward for me.”
Thanks for all the memories.
Assunta Ng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.