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Emory College student leader Vivian Liu named 2023 Udall Scholar
profile image of Vivian Liu

Vivian Liu has been named a 2023 Udall Scholar in recognition of research and advocacy work focused on preserving natural landscapes and uplifting marginalized communities.

— Kay Hinton, Emory Photo/Video

Beginning at Emory College remotely in 2020 allowed Vivian Liu to turn their Queens, New York, neighborhood into a real-world laboratory for environmental sciences coursework.

Seeing a community protest for affordable housing, in particular, helped to demonstrate how environmentalism could envelope social, racial and political concerns.

Now a rising senior, Liu’s commitment to addressing those overlapping issues has earned them the 2023 Udall Scholarship. Liu is one of 55 recipients selected for the national award and Emory’s fourth winner.

“Environmental issues are racial and economic issues, too,” says Liu, an environmental sciences major on the social policy track with a minor in quantitative sciences.

“Instead of building parking lots or expensive hotels, we could build green parks, affordable housing and good schools. We could consider the needs of local people and the environment in our decisions,” Liu adds.

The Udall Scholarship honors college sophomores and juniors nationwide for demonstrated commitment to the environment, Native American health care or tribal public policy. The award comes with $7,000 and a weeklong “orientation” program this summer in Arizona for scholars to build skills, share ideas and network with current and past recipients.

Liu’s ability to connect climate change to inequity carries over to similar community building in Atlanta. Advocacy work in New York prompted them to join the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Activists (APIDAA) at Emory.

There, Liu found mentors like Neisa Yin 22C, another Queens resident who understood the importance of increasing political awareness and teaching low-income, immigrant and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) communities about their rights.

Mentors in APIDAA and the environmental sciences department, like Clare McCarthy 23C, also recommended the Community Building and Social Change (CBSC) fellowship, which integrates academic learning with community engagement.

Liu was a standout in the prerequisite fall course and spring course and lab, says CBSC founder Michael Rich, a professor and chair of the Department of Political Science who oversaw Liu’s work in class and the subsequent summer fellowship.

“Vivian is really the best of what Emory has to offer,” Rich says. “(They) are somewhat unique among environmental science students, in understanding the science while being committed to mobilizing communities to act in a collaborative way.”

A willingness to have difficult conversations

Liu’s dedication to empowering communities was on display as a CSBC Fellow last summer. Working with the Center for Pan Asian Community Services (CPACS) and We Love Buford Highway, they and other CSBC fellows traveled up and down the six lanes of Buford Highway to survey small business owners about how the pandemic and a huge new film/TV studio were affecting shops and community.

Some of the mostly immigrant owners agreed to talk because Liu could converse with them in Chinese and Spanish. Other times, Liu won them over with a willingness to keep coming back to have difficult conversations.

CPACS advocacy director Tiffany Garnace was impressed enough to invite Liu to return in fall 2022 and join students from Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia for the Georgia University Coalition for Civic Engagement (GUCCE) voter education campaign .

Liu, as co-president of APIDAA with Anhhuy Do 24C, helped coordinate students for door-to-door canvassing and other efforts to increase election turnout in mostly Asian neighborhoods.

“It takes a lot of grit to talk to people, especially when they are mistrustful, and persuade literal strangers to engage,” Garnace says. “Vivian is an amazing leader, who people really listened to, and is so ingrained in this community now. (They are) always welcome here.”

Building a stronger campus life

Liu brings a passion for promoting local political activism to campus life. As a resident advisor at the Undergraduate Residential Center on Emory’s Clairmont campus, they helped complex director Brian Pirapakaran organize a voting initiative and sustainability program last year.

Liu also is among campus and community protesters challenging Atlanta’s planned police training center, asking questions about how the project may affect the neighboring community and impact the environment.

“I think it speaks to the willpower and perseverance of Vivian, to be able to still do this work in the face of the odds,” Pirapakaran says. “When your support systems have strong opinions, and you value those perspectives, it can be challenging to do the antithesis of what they want.”

Liu sees the training center as a prime example of the value of interweaving environmental justice with politics, much in the way that affordable housing protests did when they started their journey.

Liu is considering a potential career in urban planning, community development or environmental, social and governance investing to examine more formal avenues for those sorts of decisions. As for next steps? They’re keeping an open mind.

“I did not know that staying home my freshman year would lead me to see how all of these issues are interconnected,” Liu says. “The magic of it is being open to learning, and then communicating and challenging these issues to build a world that works for everyone.”

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