Gephardt News

Dan Chai, ’20, Uses Opportunity Fund to Support Immigrant Students, Build Relationships

The Community Engagement Opportunity Fund, which is in its inaugural year, supports students with high financial need who face burdensome expenses associated with their participation in community service, civic engagement initiatives, and Community Engaged Courses in the St. Louis area. This fund seeks to enable students to participate in a variety of civic engagement activities, from developing new grassroots initiatives to strengthening current community partnerships. 

Dan Chai, class of 2020, has used the Opportunity Fund to support his work throughout the past semester serving at the International Institute of St. Louis’ after-school program, which provides tutoring and recreational time for immigrant/refugee high school students four days a week. Dan shared his thoughts on his project, civic engagement, and how more students can get involved.

“I have come to understand civic engagement as a reciprocal relationship, and it is an absolutely necessary part of my life.”

-Dan Chai

Q: Describe your service experience. What does your day-to-day consist of?

A: From Monday to Wednesday, we focus on academics. One of my roles is to tutor, where students can get personalized help on their homework and prepare for upcoming tests. Alongside schoolwork, students also have the opportunity to engage in additional math and English skill-building activities. I have developed several materials for tutors to engage these students, including conversation cards to build colloquial speaking skills, Kahoot reading comprehension games, and manipulatives to build math skills.

Another project I have worked on is goal-setting for the students. Students create a list of goals for their current semester and a variety of goals on a timeline. From there, students choose their most important goal that they want to actively work towards and create a list of steps to accomplish their goal. We then assess their progress on their goals throughout the program and provide targeted support as needed.

On Thursdays, students have recreational time. Volunteers and students engage in activities where students can have fun, build social skills, and develop their hobbies. We regularly get access to the gym, where volleyball, basketball, and soccer games are typically going on. Students also love playing board games, and a game of chess is almost always being played every Thursday. In addition to guitar and piano lessons, students have participated in cooking. This semester, we explored some new recipes like spaghetti, cupcakes, and tacos.

Q: What has been the most meaningful part of this project?

A: The relationships I had with the students was the most meaningful part of this semester. It has been an enlightening experience to see these students come in every Monday through Thursday with a burning drive and passion to develop their academic and language skills. Seeing these students everyday made me want to match their energy and make sure that I was doing my best to support them. I always made sure to check in with the kids on how they were doing, and seeing their lighthearted and bright attitudes had an undeniable effect on my overall happiness at WashU. Getting to know them on an individual level has also made me attune to their needs and more curious to figure out how else we can support these students. This often left me feeling motivated to keep pushing to find creative and novel ways to help these students move forward. But more importantly, I saw how much each student grew throughout the semester, all of them gaining more self-confidence as their literacy and language skills improved. In turn, this changed how they interacted with me, first being shy with me to cracking jokes with me and even about me.

Q: Why is civic engagement important to you?

A: It’s really important to me to stay grounded and connected to the communities that I’m surrounded by. I find it very easy to get enveloped in my own world at WashU because I’m constantly thinking about my classes or what I need to do to get to the next point. For a period of time, I had become isolated in the WashU bubble as everything I needed was on campus. But it came to a point where I felt like I was just extracting resources from St. Louis and giving nothing back in return. Even in terms of the knowledge that I had gained from WashU, I felt I only learned at a superficial level. But when I started engaging with the surrounding community, specifically the immigrant population of St. Louis, it deepened my experience as a scholar and as a person. As I worked with the immigrant students and got to know their stories, I directly heard from them about the issues that they faced, issues that I had only skimmed earlier in classes.

Working alongside other passionate tutors and experienced coordinators in the field, I was able to have captivating conversations about the solutions being put into action, solutions that could only be thought of by knowing and being in the community. This experience has even been vastly helpful in directing and focusing my interest in immigrant groups, and it has caused me to think specifically about the challenges immigrant youth face in the educational system. I have found that I know what I want and need to study next, who I need to continue working with, and why I ended up in St. Louis. But none of this would have happened if I didn’t take the time to utilize the resources that WashU has provided me to engage with the International Institute. I don’t know when this became explicit, but I have come to understand civic engagement as a reciprocal relationship, and it is an absolutely necessary part of my life. While the community organizations have a breadth of resources to offer, it is important for me to use the resources that I can access at WashU to connect to the community. It is because of this that I believe that positive social change can only begin to occur when this reciprocal relationship is acknowledged, acted upon, and affirmed.

Q: What advice would you give other students who want to get involved in the community?

A: Don’t be afraid of the time commitment. Entering junior year, I had a lot of ideas about what I needed to do academically, but I knew that I wanted to be involved in some form of teaching or mentoring position and work with immigrant/refugee students. During the fall semester, I stumbled across a call for volunteers for the after-school program and took on the opportunity. After realizing how much I loved it, I knew that the best way to move forward was to immerse myself as much as possible in this type of work. So, in the spring semester, I decided to intern and go every day the program ran, and I had the opportunity to serve not only as a tutor but also as an administrator, helping to develop the projects the kids would end up doing. I felt like I was sprinting for a lot of the semester, but it was truly an invaluable experience. I found that I did my work more diligently, simply because I didn’t have the time to slack off. I found myself in unique positions, now having the opportunity to have in-depth conversations with professors and people that I had admired from afar before. I also walked away with insights that I never thought about before. Perhaps the craziest to me though, is that I feel like I have made a step toward aspirations that I saw others accomplish but never thought that I would accomplish myself. There is so much growth that comes with pushing yourself to be engaged with your community, and it will be uncomfortable at times, but you will walk away with pride at the work you have completed.

Learn more about the Community Engagement Opportunity Fund here.