spea magazine

Cream of the Crop

Student Stories: Jelling Lai

jelling laiJelling Lai is currently pursuing a joint master’s degree in public affairs and environmental science (MPA-MSES), concentrating in environmental and natural resource management. Originally from Taipei, Taiwan, Jelling is the diversity coordinator at SPEA. She talked about her experiences in an interview with Alana Salata for the Indiana University Student Stories Project. This article is excerpted and used by permission of the IU Alumni Association from that project (full transcript available at http://alumni.indiana.edu/profiles/students/lai.shtml).

Why did you choose to attend IU?

Because of the good reputation that SPEA has. When I came to visit, there was a really strong emphasis on the relationship between the professor and the student, which is something I thought was important in fostering a professional career. Career Services has a lot of good resources. And I wanted to go to a graduate school that was interested in helping me develop my career, instead of just coming to gain a degree.

Tell me a little about the Diversity Project and its objectives.
Well, the Diversity Project – at SPEA particularly – aims to foster and enhance not only the department’s diversity and growth, but also how diversity affects the community in a much broader sense. The Project supports the presence of students with different social interests and of different cultural interests, minorities, people with disabilities, people who face persecution or any kind of discrimination, etc. And it aims to foster this community and this diversity by supporting, funding, and holding activities and programs throughout the campus that the committee – which will be formed under the Project –believes will fulfill the goals that are set out by the Project – to educate the community about diversity.

How did you find out about the Diversity Project, and why did you decide to become involved?
SPEA’s really good at communication: I found out about the Diversity Project through e-mails. I’ve always had a great interest in people and I’ve always had a great interest fostering this growth, and, as an international student, I’ve faced – I wouldn’t call it discrimination necessarily – but occasions where you can become quite sensitive to certain people’s reactions or the way they treat you or the comments they make. Having experienced this first-hand, has driven me to want to promote greater awareness of these issues. When I read about the Diversity Coordinator position, it seemed a good fit.

How have your international experiences affected your perspective on diversity issues?
I think that my transition from Taiwan, where I was born, to Malaysia, where I grew up, really sort of prepared me for my transition from Malaysia to the U.S. I had to go through quite a period of adjustment. Taiwan and Malaysia are actually very different: Malaysia is an Islamic country, and also predominantly Indian, Chinese, and Malays. That was probably my first exposure to a diverse setting. Just growing up in Malaysia really exposed me to people with different interests and personalities, and that has sort of inspired my interest in finding out more about how a culture, a background, can shape someone’s personality, ambitions, and interests. You face the problems with languages, you face the issue of dealing with different cultural expectations and the way people behave. I had to learn English, as well, so I understand the difficulties involved in learning a new language, and also not knowing a language in an environment that doesn’t speak your own.

What are your future goals, and how do you think IU has helped prepare you to meet those goals?
I originally was brought up to be more reserved and quieter, and not to speak my mind – that’s just because of the way my culture is. And also, in the Asian education system, you’re not encouraged to ask questions. So coming here and knowing that in the States it works very differently, it took a long time for me to overcome those reluctances. I feel that IU, especially my program at SPEA, has truly encouraged me to give my opinions, to think analytically, and to also work in a group setting, and I believe it will enhance my social skills and interpersonal skills to help me be prepared for working with people in the future.