Episode 79 │ From Cheetah Girl to Ceebu Jen (SENEGAL/SINGAPORE)
Updated: Sep 22
"Education is one of the most powerful ways we can change these outcomes, we can change these -isms, we can empower folks to DO whatever the heck they want to do. And not present all these ridiculous and violent obstacles to folks." (Wendy, Episode 79)
This week's guest on Young, Gifted and Abroad is a friend of a friend! My good friend Sho (episode 71) put me in touch with Wendy Cheung back in January, and after scheduling conflicts on both my side and Wendy's, I finally got to interview her in April. Over the course of our correspondence leading up to the interview, Wendy informed me that during her undergraduate years she studied abroad five times in a total of six different countries: Spain, Senegal, France, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. My primary question was how in the world she was able to manage it all, and I looked forward to having her tell me how everything came together!
Born and raised in Southern California, Wendy was admitted to the University of California, Berkeley knowing that she would do two things: major in French, and study abroad. Her high school had an excellent French program, and her French teacher's passion for the language made Wendy so excited to learn that she carried that enthusiasm with her to college. As for studying abroad, she credits her late godfather for making her aware of the option at a younger age. Her godfather's own kids had studied abroad, and knowing what an amazing time they had, he told Wendy that he wanted her to have those same opportunities. So, he began setting aside a fund just for her when she was in middle or high school. And even though the fund only amounted to about $1,000 by the time Wendy was ready to go abroad, her godfather's encouragement had put the notion of studying abroad on her radar in such a way that she was able to begin her time at UC Berkeley already anticipating where she might go. Wendy was eager to strategize about what credits she needed to take and what programs she wanted to pursue, "Because I'm a Virgo, I love to plan." After meeting repeatedly with advisors and doing her own research as well, she honed in on the prospect of spending her junior year abroad.
Of course, some changes occurred that Wendy didn't plan for. She had first heard about the peace and conflict studies (PACS) major that UC Berkeley offered while she was applying to college, and her own experience growing up in a household with a lot of conflict made her want to interrogate the question: "What is this idea of peace?". Hence, she went from initially intending to only be a French major to double-majoring in peace and conflict studies as well. And despite all her meticulous planning and even taking a year of Swahili to prepare, her much-awaited first study abroad program in Kenya was cancelled. The program was supposed to take place the summer before her junior year, and since that was no longer an option she now had to make adjustments, "Barriers are presented and you just gotta flow with it." She went to Barcelona, Spain that summer instead of Kenya; she already had a different program in mind for the following summer, so she just moved that forward a year. The program in Barcelona was run by UC Berkeley's Department of Ethnic Studies and focused on international migration. Since it was a Berkeley program, Wendy had multiple sources of familiarity in that her classes were led by a Berkeley professor and most of the students were Berkeley students like herself. She became especially close with the girls in her dorm room, and they even called themselves "The Cheetah Girls"—referring to the fictional girl group/quartet of friends who also went on a summer trip to Barcelona—as they went out on the town, enjoying the abundant nightlife that this coastal city offered them.
After that summer, Wendy spent the fall semester of her junior year in Dakar, Senegal, which remains her favorite study abroad experience of them all. She was there for a CIEE (Council on International Educational Exchange) program in which participants studied international development and did internships related to that field. Participants also lived with Senegalese families during this time, and Wendy grew especially fond of her host father, who reminded her of her own father back home. As an intern at a women's rights non-profit organization called Réseau Siggil Jigéen, Wendy's work consisted of translating documents from French to English (and vice versa), shadowing while her supervisor advised survivors of domestic violence, and attending meetings and conferences related to the various issues that RSJ advocates for (such as sexual/reproductive health rights and putting an end to child marriage). Wendy's involvement with RSJ not only opened her eyes to these issues, but also exposed her to the power of activism and got her closer to understanding what she wanted to do for her career. More on that later.
Spring semester took Wendy to Paris, France, where she studied political science at Sciences Po (Institut d'études politiques de Paris). She used to host French students in high school, and when she went to visit her friends in the French countryside for a few weeks, she spent three days in Paris. She quickly realized that three days wouldn't be enough for her; unlike many who visit the city only to conclude that it's over-rated, Wendy was charmed by the city and felt there was so much more of it she wanted to see. That desire is partly why she chose to do a semester in Paris. And while she was happy to be back in France (especially as a French major), she did occasionally get frustrated when people would look at her, an Asian person, and choose not to speak to her in French. Standing out so much in Senegal had made Wendy keenly aware of her Asianness in a new way, but people would still converse with her in the languages that locals used (French and Wolof). In France, however, people would speak to Wendy in English because they assumed she couldn't speak French, and this really cemented how much her being Asian—and people's assumptions about what that means—is at the forefront of how some people perceive her.
Following her junior year abroad, Wendy worked as a peer advisor in the UC Berkeley study abroad office during her senior year. She believed that she could put her expansive knowledge of available programs to use toward assisting other students, but this was not her sole motivation. Wendy had been plotting on how she could study abroad again, and while working at the study abroad office she figured out that her financial aid could be extended past her fourth year, allowing her to do another summer program and fall program. This would be her chance to finally go to Southeast Asia, which she'd been wanting to visit for numerous reasons. For starters, Wendy knew that most conversation about Asian people in America tends to focus on East Asians (especially from China, Japan, or South Korea), and she wanted to get to know other parts of Asia better so she could more knowledgeably advocate for the diverse experiences of the AAPI community. She's also had Southeast Asian friends since she was a child, has Southeast Asian family members, and even today feels like her parents' lives as immigrants from rural China have more in common with Southeast Asian people than their wealthier urban Chinese counterparts. Plus, as comfortable as she'd become with her identity by that point, she figured it would also be nice to blend in for once after spending so much time in places where she stuck out for being Asian.
Having avoided STEM classes as much as she could and needing to fulfill a science credit, Wendy signed up for a biodiversity program in Singapore. This program was administered by the University of California Education Abroad Program (UCEAP), which students from any of the UC campuses can participate in. In addition to classes at the National University of Singapore (NUS), students were split into groups to do field studies and biological research. Wendy chose the marine group because she really wanted to be in the ocean, and to her delight she wound up snorkeling six hours a day. As part of their field studies, Wendy and her classmates also got to spend a week and a half on an island in Malaysia.
When I asked Wendy the somewhat silly question of whether she thought any of how Singapore is depicted in the movie 'Crazy Rich Asians' is true to life, she told me about the "weird dichotomy" that exists there. Singapore is one of the richest countries on Earth, but she herself was able to live modestly and enjoy amazing food that wasn't costly at all (sometimes as low as 3 USD per meal). Housing is arranged in such a way that the ethnic composition of residents must be proportional to the ethnic composition of the general population (presumably to make things equitable), but Wendy believes that socioeconomic inequity still exists between Malay and Chinese Singaporeans in particular. Strict rules for public behavior help keep Singapore clean and its public transportation efficient, but some might find the punishments for such acts as littering to be severe. Wendy personally didn't feel like she had to be on her toes or modify her behavior very much, but that's largely because she'd taken the time to learn about Singapore before arriving.
For her final study abroad program, Wendy spent the following semester in Bangkok, Thailand. This was a UCEAP-administered program that focused on Thai studies, including courses on Thai politics, society and culture, architecture, and religion. While there, Wendy also interned at Ashoka, a non-profit organization that helps other (often smaller) non-profits thrive. Similar to her time in Senegal, as an Ashoka intern she helped a local domestic violence shelter run campaigns related to women's health and violence prevention, and she also helped the shelter create better internal systems based on the needs they had at the time. Wendy hesitantly admitted to me that her love of Thai food had greatly influenced in her decision to specifically go to Thailand, and this admission led to her singing the praises of Senegalese food as well, musing on the spicy deliciousness of a staple rice and fish dish known as thieboudienne or ceebu jen.
Trying to save the world
From interning in Senegal and Thailand, to working at a domestic violence shelter in San Francisco, to doing research for an organization that combatted child marriage through improving education for girls, to teaching at a high school in Louisiana, the wide and multi-faceted range of Wendy's experiences has led her to her current path: pursing a PhD in education studies. Within that, she's specializing in the intersections between education, gender, and public health. Her internship in Senegal in particular taught her that gender issues are also public health issues, and today she sees gender, public health, and access to education as inextricably linked. Furthermore, as someone who's cognizant of how much her parents sacrificed for her to take advantage of educational opportunities that they weren't afforded, working toward educational equity for as many people as possible is of the utmost importance for Wendy. Additionally, she's eager to help make studying abroad possible for students who didn't think it was possible, and hopes to one day start a study abroad fund in honor of her godfather. When I half-jokingly remarked that it seems like Wendy is trying to save the world, she replied, "I'm trying! I really am trying. I say that pretty frequently." It goes without saying that she possesses an incredibly strong sense of purpose.
Currently Wendy is back living and pursuing her PhD in Southern California, and is itching for an opportunity to leave the U.S. again, especially when the pandemic and heightened anti-Asian sentiment pose less of a concern. East African countries where Swahili is spoken (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, etc.) and Morocco are high on her list of new places she'd like to visit in the future. Wendy can be reached on Instagram (@wendyycheung) or Facebook (Wendy Cheung).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "From Cheetah Girl to Ceebu Jen (SENEGAL/SINGAPORE)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
UC Berkeley Global Studies major (includes peace & conflict concentration)
"Strut" (music video from 'The Cheetah Girls 2' in Barcelona)
Biodiversity in Singapore (UCEAP program)
Thai studies in Bangkok (UCEAP program)