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For McMullan Award winner Wei Wei Chen, art is centerpiece of life

By April Hunt | Emory Report | May 10, 2018

A first-generation college student whose parents emigrated from China, Wei Wei Chen heeded their advice to embrace every opportunity at Emory. Her openness and charm were on display during a recent Emory Arts Underground pop-up on Cox Bridge. As members sang with a piano player, Chen convinced observers to join her in dancing along. Emory Photo/Video

Wei Wei Chen watched anime growing up as a way to better understand people, but it was watching a skit at Emory College of Arts and Sciences orientation four years ago that made her realize that art could tell her story, too.

Chen’s parents, who emigrated from China when she was 7 and never attended college, had encouraged her to embrace every opportunity Emory offered. When a student with the Emory Issues Troupe spoke of parents who worked in a flea market, as Chen’s do, she saw where those opportunities could lead.

“I felt seen for the first time,” Chen says. “All I have ever wanted to do is move and understand people the way I felt moved and seen.”

A Dean’s Achievement Scholar, Chen went on to major in film studies, with a concentration in film and media management. She has spent her time at Emory exceling in a broad selection of coursework and becoming a driving force for the arts in an impressive array of avenues.

Her accomplishments led to her selection as the 2018 winner of the Lucius Lamar McMullan Award.

The McMullan Award, made possible by a generous gift from Emory alumnus William Matheson 47G, honors Chen’s previous leadership and service to community. Beyond that, it signals that the Emory community expects great things from her, on a grand scale, in her future plans to work in children’s animation and arts management.

It also includes $25,000 to be used in any way Chen chooses.

“She pulled from every discipline she could, exposed herself to all kinds of art and every kind of person,” says Jim Grimsley, English and creative writing professor of practice who taught Chen in three writing seminars. “I see her becoming something of an auteur. She just wants to serve the story.”

Exploring “who we are as humans”

Chen grew up outside Orlando, Florida, where her parents instilled the value of hard work and humility. Effort and intellect served her well in school, though she often questioned teachers not about what she was learning, but why the world was as it was.

When a close friend died suddenly in high school, Chen found solace in art and the idea of following her heart to make decisions.

Around that time, she first heard of Emory through QuestBridge, a national non-profit that links highly qualified, low-income students with a four-year financial aid award to some of the nation's best colleges. Her heart led her to apply. The appeal: Emory’s eminence in the liberal arts.

“I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself,” Chen says. “Taking acting or studying computer science, it felt like more classes meant more opportunities to explore who we are as humans.”

Lori Teague, an associate professor and director of the Emory Dance and Movement Studies Program, recently watched Chen stand up at the Interdisciplinary Humanities Conference on campus to question how Emory could continue to embrace students who do not fit into traditional academic silos.

Teague saw the value of that when Chen enrolled in her movement improvisation class several years ago. Among dance majors, Chen's creative engagement stood out.

“What movement does to people is connect them to their own identity; shift them into new environments; and invite them to make connections with others,” Teague says. “I really remember her curiosity leading her. She invested in her authentic voice. She connects easily, and I think she’s going to be amazing because of that.” 

Change agent for the arts

At the same time Chen was wowing her professors in the classroom, she was pursuing her passion for art through a variety of campus activities. As soon as she could, she became a writer and actor with the Emory Issues Troupe, whose skit had so moved her.

She took over Emory Arts Underground, branding it as the leading arts organization on campus, and helped shepherd Dark Arts, an arts group focused on decreasing mental health stigma, and ScienceArtWonder, which pairs artists with labs to illustrate scientific research.

Chen also worked as a graphic design and marketing intern for the Center for Women at Emory and was a resident and sophomore adviser in Residence Life.

It was there she co-developed an initiative that transported 50 students to see the Alliance Theater’s production of “Disgraced,” then returned to campus for a panel of faculty discussing the play’s themes of identity and Islamophobia.

Her activities were about more than her own curiosity or even making good on the opportunities her parents wanted. She took to heart her parents’ lifelong advice: Work hard. Be kind. Always say thank you.

“I can’t begin to tell you how many truly inspiring and kind and selfless people I met at Emory, who made me feel so loved, that I wanted to be that for them,” Chen says.

Her openness and charm were on display during a recent Emory Arts Underground (EAU) pop-up on Cox Bridge. As members sang with a piano player, Chen convinced observers to join her in dancing along.

Tanushree Khanna, a vice president in EAU, was among those who had already been swept up in Chen’s energy. As a sophomore at Oxford College, she submitted work to the group, but by the time Khanna arrived on Emory’s Atlanta campus, she had become Chen’s friend and colleague.

Khanna, a senior accounting major, now works with Chen on the board of Emory Arts Underground and at the Undergraduate Residential Center, where they are both resident advisers.

“With Wei Wei, her energy is just incredible and she attracts the people who can be from all different areas but are working with passion,” Khanna says. “You can see she’s just getting started, and whatever she does, it’s going to be amazing.”

A future in storytelling

Chen’s immediate future will be in Hong Kong, where she is spending this summer studying art and culture with the Emory Global Internship Program.

Next fall, she will begin a master’s degree in contemporary studies at the University of St Andrews in Scotland as one of this year’s Robert T. Jones Jr. scholars. The program calls for weaving 12 disciplines together to analyze and solve contemporary challenges.

Chen has experience in that sort of exploration. She decided to take a computer science course after working as an intern at the Cartoon Network, where she noted many shows were trying to teach kids how to code. She wanted a better understanding of the animation content.

A close friend who was majoring in computer science also convinced her to try to understand a more linear, logical way of thinking. That practical mindset could become a character in animation she hopes to produce for children and young adults.

“If you want to move people, you have to do it in a way they want to be understood, and the only way to do that is to understand who they really are,” Chen says. “I’m so grateful and honored for the opportunity to influence the stories being told.”

The McMullan Award adds to those opportunities. The financial award will allow her to pay back her parents for their investment in her Emory education.

“My parents said to remember that someone, somewhere is supporting me,” Chen says. “If I am not giving my all, I’m not supporting their belief in me. So I will always give my all.”