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Undergraduate Brittain Award winner Zhang pushes for social justice on and off campus
Emory University 2022 undergraduate Brittain Award recipient Stephanie Zhang

Stephanie Zhang is on a mission to create a more equitable world. Her commitment to creating a more welcoming campus has earned her the 2022 undergraduate Brittain Award, Emory’s highest student honor.

— Emory Photo Video

Stephanie Zhang is on a mission to create a more equitable world, and for the last four years, she has used Emory as her training ground. The Emory College of Arts and Sciences philosophy and economics double major from Johns Creek, Georgia, has served her community as a mentor, activist, thought leader and friend. Her commitment to creating a more welcoming campus has earned her the 2022 undergraduate Marion L. Brittain Award, Emory’s highest student honor.

‘All of us or none of us’

“Stephanie does not engage in student leadership to add lines to her resume. She is guided by a strong sense of justice that serves as her moral compass,” Chanel Craft Tanner, director of the Center for Women, wrote in Zhang’s Brittain Award nomination letter. “What is also remarkable is the way that she operates from an ‘all of us or none of us’ ethic that refuses to pit oppressed groups against one another. Her activism is truly intersectional, and others have benefited from decisions she has made.”  

Getting her feet wet as a student programming assistant at the Center for Women, Zhang helped organize and facilitate Girl Con, an annual event that brings 50 local middle school students to campus for girls’ empowerment workshops. She led the attendees through art projects, exchanged TikTok dances with them, and co-created and co-presented a workshop that covered strategies they can use to advocate for themselves and build impactful coalitions.

At the same time, she served as a mentor in the university’s peer-mentoring program, MORE. This program, housed in the Office of Racial and Cultural Engagement, is designed to help acclimate first-year students to the Emory community, both academically and socially. That experience turned a light on for Zhang that indeed more was needed and desired for students of color.

“When I started at Emory, it just felt like there were very few resources available for Asian American students, especially from an administrative and professional standpoint,” Zhang says. “I wanted to create spaces and ensure that those types of resources were accessible. Asian American students tend to get put in this model minority trope where we don’t really need help and having a large population of Asian American students is sufficient, when I knew that many of my friends were struggling.”

Zhang, who is Chinese American, brought her experience as a youth fellow and organizer with Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a national civil rights organization, to unite students around issues impacting the Asian, Pacific Islander and Desi American (APIDA) community at Emory. Recognizing that APIDA students needed a space of respite, dedicated resources and staff to support their unique needs, Zhang facilitated meetings and listening sessions to identify specific issues and work toward solutions.

At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic began, and anti-Asian rhetoric and violence hit close to home. This, combined with the 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrations, made Zhang look to her community to make change. When she was co-president of Emory Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Activists (APIDAA), Zhang and her peers raised money for various causes, hosted intragroup conversations around current events and explored tensions between Asian American students and international Asian students.

“Yes, APIDAA works actively at Emory, but we’re also aware of the ways Asian Americans are conditioned in the world outside of Emory,” Zhang says. “During the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, we discussed strategies to talk to elders who may not understand the context of anti-Blackness in America, especially when there are language barriers, and how to bring it back to our families. …

"When the shootings happened so close to Emory, we brought in a mental health professional to facilitate a conversation. It was a place for community members to talk about the fear, sadness and grief that they were holding onto, but also to talk about community resilience.”

Zhang’s efforts during the last four years helped lead to the creation of the university’s first Asian Student Center, which opened in fall 2021, and the first staff position for APIDA initiatives in the Office for Racial and Cultural Engagement. APIDAA also now has a chapter on the Oxford campus.

“Her work was instrumental in creating the visible APIDA community we see on campus today,” Malcolm J. Robinson, associate director of the Office of Racial and Cultural Engagement, wrote in her nomination letter. “Stephanie has remained committed to her goal of making Emory a more inclusive place throughout her college experience, and her contributions to the community will be felt long after she’s gone.”

Her commitment to advocacy has made Zhang a highly sought-after student leader. She participated in the search for the assistant director of Latinx initiatives, served on diversity committees across the university and was selected to represent the Cox Hall student ambassadors at the identity spaces unveiling. She was also named a Newman Civic Fellow, an honor extended to community-minded students who are changemakers and  problem solvers on their campuses.

Recommending that students ‘be present’

As she prepares for graduation, Zhang hopes that future generations will continue to make Emory more inclusive. She is unsure of her next move, but she knows wherever she goes, advocacy is her calling.

For now, she is enjoying the moment. Activism is taxing work, and Zhang likes to unwind by hiking, rock-climbing and playing volleyball. This summer, she’ll take a road trip to the Pacific Northwest to celebrate her achievements before jumping into the next thing — something she hopes more students will do.

“People say this a lot, but I would advise other students to be present in your four years at Emory,” Zhang says. “A lot of students are in preprofessional programs, so they’re looking at their next step. But there’s a lot of activity happening in the Southeast when it comes to doing advocacy work. If people just slow down and take the time to be here, they’ll recognize that they have a lot of opportunity to make change and they don’t really need to be as focused on accelerating into the future.”

She adds, “I feel like I’ve become more self-actualized because of my choice to do what I like. I chose not to really follow a preprofessional path and just do what I enjoyed, and I enjoy activism and advocacy work.”

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