Shawna Chen: On the Scene, Reporting Notepad in Hand
In my three years at The Student, I’ve had my fair share of intimidating interviews. On more than one occasion, I’ve frantically loitered the halls of Converse reminding myself to take a deep breath before walking into the office of an administrator with difficult questions in hand, or hesitated to press the “dial” button on my phone knowing that the conversation with the person on the other line would be taxing. And yet, I’ve never prepared for an interview more than this one with Shawna Chen ’20.
The nerves didn’t come because Chen herself is intimidating — everyone who knows her can attest to the overabundance of care with which she treats people (“She looks like a badass but is such a marshmallow,” good friend Esther Seo ’20 lovingly put it). It’s not because I had a list of challenging, unsavory topics I wanted to bring to the fore — if anything, we both joked about how redundant our conversation felt at times as I asked her questions about her hometown fully anticipating what she was going to say next. Rather, interviewing Chen felt like I was being put to the test, because everything I know about journalism I know from Chen.
“It’s weird, huh?” Chen told me, acknowledging that she usually isn’t on this side of the interview. While some may not know her face (though let’s be real: it’s Amherst, and you’ve probably run into her at least once), nearly everyone on campus recognizes her name, which has sat comfortably in the byline of countless articles in The Student. I’ve seen her in action, scribbling notes with a Muji pen into her reporter’s notepad, on phone calls in The Student’s Morrow Dormitory office, furrowing her eyebrows while very meticulously editing the week’s articles. It’s rare to see someone exhibit so much passion toward a job as laborious as that of a journalist, but Chen does.
She strives to get the facts straight through whatever means it takes, all the while handling her interviewees’ stories with tremendous stewardship, a feat I aspire to with every article I write. With someone as skilled and ambitious as Chen, it’s not hard to imagine why presenting my questions to her for this profile induced some anxiety (she is a Slytherin, after all).
I’ve been lucky enough to get to know the person behind the print, to both see Chen in her element as a journalist and build a friendship that has impacted me in more ways than she knows. There’s more to Chen than the words she spills onto a page: She knows exactly where to get the best boba regardless of what city she is in; she can guess anyone’s Myers Briggs personality type after knowing them for 15 minutes; she is quick to compliment.
Seo also noted the tenderhearted friendship Chen offers others. “She loves and cares for the people around her like no other. She remembers the small stuff and the big stuff that matter. She worries about me when I am dressed too nicely and I worry about her when her socks match,” she said. Undergirding all of what Chen does, regardless of whether it’s in a newspaper or not, is a profound sense of compassion.
Between Shanghai and Silicon Valley
Though Chen was born in Cupertino, California, the Silicon Valley neighborhood would not be her permanent home, with her family moving to Shanghai when she was four. She lived in an area that was “looked down upon,” she noted, far removed from the up-and-coming metropolitan center of the city. Her early memories in China are colored with vignettes of her rollerblading with her cousins and drinking milk tea. “I swear, I fell in love with boba,” Chen said, no surprise to anyone who has witnessed her boba consumption.
Chen would not stay in Shanghai, either, and her family moved back to the Bay Area again when she was 10, this time permanently settling in Palo Alto. Settling in a familiar place should have proven less difficult, but the cultural differences between Shanghai and the bay grew starkly apparent to Chen, even at the ripe age of 10.
“I remember coming back [to the U.S.] so proud of being Chinese and so proud of my heritage,” Chen said. “I think within a year, it was all stripped away from me because it became clear to me somehow — not explicitly, but somehow — that all of that was considered weird or inferior.”
Coming of age in the heart of the tech industry further illuminated a new cultural dimension Chen did not encounter to the same extent in Shanghai: the work-centered, perfectionist atmosphere that defines Palo Alto. With Stanford on one end of town and a plethora of tech giants mere miles away, this micro-culture didn’t come as a shock to Chen. Among her classmates and neighbors going into high school included the children of Stanford professors, Yahoo executives and even the cofounder of eBay (with Steve Jobs’s daughter attending the rival high school, she was quick to add). Coupled with the desire to make her parents’ sacrifices worth it — a sentiment well-felt by many children of immigrants — Chen underscored competitiveness and pressure as hallmarks of her high school experience.
“We were really proud to be Titans, and there was a lot of school spirit,” Chen said about her alma mater Henry M. Gunn High School. “But it was a hard environment.”
Chen was not the only one to sense the deep-seated perfectionism at her high school and in Palo Alto at large: the Silicon Valley town would soon become infamous for its suicide clusters, with three of her Gunn classmates and one student at the other high school taking their lives in her junior year, including one friend.
“It really fundamentally changed me as a person, grieving and trying to learn how to grieve and not really having the space to. Because, you know, junior year meant getting your SATs ready and your subject tests and your grades and your GPA, and you’re about to apply for college. You don’t have time to mourn,” she said.
It was in this context that Chen made her college decision, choosing between Amherst, Cornell and Northwestern. When she visited Amherst the classes she attended were intellectually stimulating to her. “I never thought I could question the fundamentals of things,” Chen said about her visit. Months later, Chen would head to the east coast to begin her first year at Amherst, her mother crying in the bushes near Memorial Field as Chen went off with her orientation group.
All the News That’s Fit to Print
In her first year at Amherst, Chen admitted that she viewed her experience through rose-tinted glasses. Her hallmates on the second floor of James, including her roommate Jessica Jeong ’20 and resident counselor Kennedy Reed ’19, cultivated a vibrant community to come home to at the end of each day. Chen kept herself busy as she immersed herself as a member of the Amherst Christian Fellowship, Amherst Mixed Martial Arts and the orchestra as a violin player, alongside working on the Amherst Says Instagram page with the Office of Communications. It was also in that first semester that Chen, who had applied to the college as a psychology major, realized that she “wasn’t kidding anyone, that English was my top love” after taking a class with Henry S. Poler ’59 Presidential Teaching Professor of English Geoffrey Sanborn, who “really made the difference in opening my eyes to the kinds of literary experience you can have.”
“To be honest, that year was the happiest I’ve been here,” she said.
Perhaps the most notable part of her first year was joining The Student, first as a news writer before moving into the role of managing news editor a mere month into the fall semester.
Eventually the editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper, Chen didn’t always intend to be a journalist. When registering for classes during her freshman year of high school, she was dismayed at the lack of creative writing courses offered. As a compromise, her mother suggested that she take journalism courses instead to quench her desire to write, unknowingly sowing the seeds for her infatuation with the field.
“I was trash at it at the beginning,” Chen quipped. “I wanted to make everything sound nice and pretty, like rainbows and sunshine. Then my journalism adviser would hand [my articles] back with big Xs.”
It didn’t take long for Chen to stop being trash at it, soon taking on stories that covered students’ cheating habits (a majority of them had cheated at least once, she found) and starting a “Changing the Narrative” column to address the school’s mental health crisis. Chen recounted all of these journalistic feats to me with great enthusiasm, but there was one story in which her devotion to the practice became most palpable. In her sophomore year of high school, she reported on a protest happening across the street from her high school, in which parents argued that their Black and brown children were tracked into special needs programs at disproportionate rates. She tracked down one of the parent organizers and sat with her in a Starbucks on a Saturday afternoon for a couple of hours. Though Chen told the parent that she couldn’t guarantee change, the parent started crying, thanking Chen for listening to her to begin with.
“I think that was when it came clear to me how reporting can really be a way to address social inequities,” Chen said. “[Journalism] is flawed for sure … but that has always been the appeal to me, holding people in power and institutions of power accountable and trying to provide a platform for people who have been erased.”
This vision of holding institutions accountable could not hold more true than in Chen’s tenure at The Student, where she ended her career there once again as editor-in-chief. At the same time that Chen remembers taking Buzzfeed quizzes at 1 a.m. with fellow news editor Isabel Tessier ’19 on publication nights, equally as vibrant in her memory are the articles she has written on the various protests and controversies that have clouded Amherst in her time here. Her first year marked the election of President Donald Trump and the ensuing demonstrations in front of Converse. At the college level, Chen remembers co-writing a story with Tessier on the creation of new tenure-track positions designated for Black and Latinx professors — a learning moment for Chen that “yeah, it’s all really inequitable.”
Considering the bloated nature of the stories she covered that first year — and beyond, with the Common Language Document, men’s lacrosse and Jeff Sessions controversies also stacked on her resume — the issues Chen tackled naturally led her toward investigative reporting down the road. “I’m always nosing around in some way. My mom always says that I think too much,” Chen said. “I tend to try to see things where sometimes there isn’t anything. But a lot of time there are things.”
“Inevitably, you build relationships with people and sources and get to know their perspective on things. And then they trust you enough to pass on information because they think you can do a good job with it,” she added.
So it went — in her junior year, a source provided Chen with “the right documents” that allowed her to investigate the obstacles faculty of color at the college face in the tenure process. In a four part series titled “A Flawed System,” Chen examined the issues with the college’s governance systems, the additional workload faculty of color carry and the general elusiveness surrounding tenure. The three months of investigation would culminate into something much bigger than she could have imagined, with The Atlantic citing the series in an article on the scarcity of and barriers to Black people earning a Ph.D. “I know the thing I’m proud of [myself for] is ‘A Flawed System,’” Chen said.
When I asked her what she was most proud of leaving behind at The Student, Chen went beyond just her own personal accomplishments to incorporate the editorial staff as a whole — a testament to her innate desire to build community. “I love The Student. I love the people. I think [Co-Editor-in-Chief Emma Swislow ’20] and I created a really nice little family,” she said. “You kind of see each other at your best and worst. There are times where I’m really angry, like, ‘why didn’t you do the thing that I told you to do?’ And then there are other times when we nail down a story and we’re all euphoric.”
“There was a hole in my heart when I left,” Chen said.
Coming Into Identity
Outside of The Student, Chen grew increasingly more involved in Asian American activism, particularly in her junior and senior years. She admitted that she wasn’t a dedicated member of the Asian Student Association in her first years at the college, but noted that recognizing the nuances around her identity was more of a “progression.”
“Even though I grew up in an area that had a lot of Asian Americans, I never really read about myself or learned about myself in school,” she said. “I never read books by Asian American authors; there were like two paragraphs on the Japanese American incarceration in the U.S. history textbooks that we read.” Coming to Amherst allowed her to take classes including “World War II and Japanese Americans” and “Model Minorities,” giving her the exposure that her previous education lacked.
By her junior year, Chen was moderating panels for the Asian American Studies Working Group, which has advocated for the implementation of an Asian American Studies major at the college for over 30 years. “[The panels] were so engrossing, just getting to hear everyone talk. You don’t really think about solidarity and what it looks like to actually break free and advocate for yourself,” Chen said.
Come senior year, Chen would be writing a thesis in the English department exploring the second-generation Asian American experience through an analysis of Ocean Vuong’s “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” and Weike Wang’s “Chemistry.” In between these traditional chapters of literary analysis, Chen incorporated vignettes of her own experiences, imagining her father’s childhood and journey from China to the U.S.
A few weeks ago, Chen sat with Logan Deming ’20, who wrote her thesis with Chen collaboratively under Assistant Professor of English Alicia Mireles Christoff, to submit their theses together, hitting the “send” button simultaneously.
“All right. Oh my God. We’re done,” Chen said.
To end college at a time like this can surmise a plethora of emotions: disappointment that formal celebrations have been suddenly stripped away, grief over the final experiences that could have been, stress about what the future holds . For Chen, graduating during the coronavirus pandemic has relieved much of the worry on what comes next. For now, she will be living at home in the Bay Area once more — her Morrow Dormitory room was littered with moving boxes when I Zoomed her for this interview — and applying for jobs, though she is in no rush. “Because of COVID and how everything is, I am just giving it off to fate to decide what happens next,” she said.
Regardless of where she ends up next, Chen was insistent on recognizing her supervisors for the jobs she held at Amherst — Theater and Dance Academic Department Coordinator Suzie Rivers; Science Library Specialist Maryanne Alos; and Concert Programming Manager Alisa Pearson — along with her therapist Min Cheng, for the support she has gotten from them.
“The word that comes to mind surprisingly, is heartbreaking,” Chen said about her Amherst experience. “But in the best of ways. I changed a lot here. I said goodbye to old versions of myself. I made a lot of relationships and learned and had my eyes open to the world.”