Michelle Loo & Bill Nguyen

by Janine Ko

photo by Samantha Velasquez

Here’s the latest installment of our senior interviews series, where we talk with the mentor-peer-elder-friends who have led our clubs and protests and movements and communities. Thank you to those of you who sent in nominations! The re:claim staff is scattered and recuperating after a long semester, but we’ll do our best to continue to reach out to folks nominated as the summer progresses. If you would like to nominate a graduating senior to be interviewed, please email us we’ll contact them as soon as we can. 

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Michelle Loo and Bill Nguyen just graduated from Barnard College and Columbia College, respectively. Michelle has been involved with the Student Governing Board and Well Woman, as well as the Charles B. Wong Community Health Center in Chinatown. Bill has worked with QuestBridge and Columbia Community Outreach. Both have also helped organize Asian Political Collective and Asian American Alliance. 

J: Can you tell me about when you first met?

M: It was through AAA [Asian American Alliance]. Do you remember the day?

B: I don’t remember the day, but we joined AAA our freshman year and I think the moment that really got us into each other was when we helped set up for cultureSHOCK our sophomore year. Somehow we got paired up during this balloon thing and Michelle and I went back to my dorm lounge.

M: To take a nap!

B: So that day I took two really good pictures of Michelle. One was of her sleeping the way that Michelle sleeps, which is with her eyes open, so I was like, “Why does she sleep like that?” The other one was of her on Lerner Ramps doing a sit up—she’s trying to get up but it looks like she’s modeling for some exercise program. After that, we were like, “Wow, this friendship is happening.”

M: Yes! Those moments have haunted me.

B: The pictures have yet to surface on social media but I just looked at them the other day.

M: No way! The card that Bill created by drawing— he just drew me doing sit ups! But I was not, I was just trying to get up! But anyways, cultureSHOCK, AAA. 2014? 2013.

B: That’s when we solidified this friendship.

M: Do you think it solidified or started?

B: Started. I feel like something solidified between us. The sit ups solidified the abs and the friendship.

J: How has your approach to organizing and engaging with Asian American communities changed since then?

M: I think it’s been hard. We’ve been trying to do APC, the Asian Political Collective but that’s been hard [figuring out] what our goal is. Like, what are we trying to do that we’re not already trying to do in other parts of our lives, through different organizations? What does it even mean to be Asian American and to organize as Asian Americans? I just have been thinking a lot about that.

B: I guess, in terms of my personal thinking, it has changed from like organizing through cultural shows or panels to being more confrontational in my personal life. Something interesting that came out of the Asian Political Collective, which we tried to get up and running after we left AAA, was this talk we had with CMTS (Columbia Musical Theater Society) about their use of yellowface during their rendition of the Drowsy Chaperone. It was a really tense conversation but it was the first one in which I had ever been honest. I was like, “Wow, a lot of feelings are boiling up in me— why don’t I just let these spill?” Being more direct as a personal change is something that has happened to me since leaving AAA.

J: Michelle, you mentioned other communities you’ve built and been a part of since AAA. Do you all want to talk about what sort of spaces or communities have really shaped you?

B: For me, it’s been QuestBridge. We’re going through a re-branding thing. It’s QuestBridge now; it used to be the Quest Scholars Network. It’s a bunch of us who applied to college through the QuestBridge program, which is a program for low-income, high-achieving students, is what they brand themselves as. I meet the best people that I have gotten the opportunity to mentor— mentor is a weird word because there’s that power dynamic— but just to be friends with. Like young, young people who come from a background similar to mine and it’s been really rewarding to pass on, “Hey, do this” or “Don’t do this” or just share this sort of experience. It’s almost a revisionist thing— like, “Here’s what I did; please don’t repeat my mistakes.”

M: I think it depends on what. If I’m thinking about what it means to be Asian American, I think most of that has been from my friends, or hanging out, or going to different events that are Asian American specific, or interning at the Charles B. Wong–just getting a feel for what other Asian Americans are thinking about. I feel like what I’ve gotten from that is that I’ve become more and more dissatisfed. We can’t talk about being Asian American without talking about anti-Blackness. That’s where I’m at right now. Just like, “Wait a minute— but also this!” A lot of that thinking has come from my friends, in terms of just thinking about social justice work.

Last year, I feel like I was thinking a lot about microaggressions on campus through working with SGA and Students for a Trans-Inclusive Barnard. [I was] thinking about how and what more Barnard can do for its students through existing structures. One, I realized that work is not for me. Like— this is hard! It’s hard to talk to adminstrators! It’s hard to talk to other students who are like, “Why is this your priority? Why do you care?” And I was like, “What? This is people’s lives it’s not like a fad or something,” which I think is a lot of times how people talk about it. Professors or administrators like to talk about diversity like, “Ok I know you guys are all different so we just have to account for the differences.” How do you tell them, “You’re right, but also can we go further?” and having that conversation 20 times. It’s so confusing! Maybe this is the trap— like I’m trying to help, but the ways I’m trying to help are reinforcing other forms of power.

J: Both of you have worked within organizations, Barnard and Columbia sanctioned spaces, but also carved out communities outside that, or within that, with QuestBridge. Do you have any wisdom or advice to share about how to navigate or balance the formal institutionalized Student Activities Board work— and what even gets to be called work in those spaces— versus labor and care and organizing that you’re doing outside of that.

M: Hmm, yeah I think with all of it you have to be so intentional.

B: Something I’ve learned is that a space or a goal or whatever–it doesn’t work if you’re not friends with the people who inhabit that space or share that goal first. I think that’s something I’ve been trying to unlearn here— to stop thinking about the people around me as symbols or theoretical things or to think about them in terms of what they do, within these parameters of what they do, what they plan to do, and what they stand for— but as like real people, living breathing people, and being friends with that and being comfortable with all the nuances an contradictions that come with being like regular people. And then carving out a space from there.

For me, the personal element comes first. So joining QuestBridge it wasn’t like, “I wanna do this for the low income community.” That’s a big term. It was that I was friends with a lot of people in the low income community, first, and we have a lot of these problems and share a lot of the same concerns. So why don’t we just do things together? So being friends with the people you’re working with before working with them is an important lesson.

M: Yeah, I think caring about the people that you’re working with— I agree! With my SGA work it was hard because SGA was hard, but all the communities I was reaching out to were just my friends. I was like, “Yo, what are you problems? Let me know.” Because all of us were in different spaces, it was more like, “Oh, you have this problem— well I have access to this person.”

So it wasn’t so much about the club, it’s more about what you want to do, and who has the capacity to do that thing. I feel like it’s more about organizing around the people, and things people are feeling. Like, what do we want? We want Barnard to be more inclusive for trans people who are already on campus. Ok, so how can we do that? And how we did it was, one, a couple of us were on SGA so we started a committee on SGA. And then there were a bunch of students who were like, “Okay let’s form a group together there are already people talking about it” and they became STIB. But yeah, I agree. Like, where are your origins?

B: I think being in academia might lead you to be sort of skeptical of this approach. Just, like, the objectivity— when you’re writing a paper you supposed to divest it of your personal experiences. But that’s not true. Even though this is how I write a lot of papers, you can’t have the argument and then find the evidence, you have to have the evidence before you put forth your argument. So be friends! Make friends!

M: Do you think this advice is more so then for us who are in the communities we’re talking about? Like are we talking about the roles of us as students of color, as low income students— this is things we could be doing. Who are we talking to right now?

B: I don’t know if I’m directing this at any communities, but I’m directing it definitely at myself as a freshman coming into the school. This is something I would really have liked to know. When I came in I was like, “Wow, I have so many interests. I have to join all these student organizations. I have to take all these classes.” I spread myself so thin that I couldn’t get invested in anything at all. I was very mediocre in everything. I think if I had learned just to like chill and find nice people, if I had slowed down and just solidified a group of people to hang out with everything else I valued would have been happier.

M: Yeah, and even just good people in general. I think I’ve been saying this more, but, like, what does it mean to have a group of friends? Is that the ideal? I also feel like I’m lacking my crew or whatever. Is Friends, the TV show, the ideal? Like a solid group of 5 people?

But just be real with yourself. Like if you feel uncomfortable, maybe you just don’t like the person and that’s okay! Or maybe they’re doing something you don’t like but you can’t identify yet. When I’m curling up, that means something!

B: That’s another real thing. Being willing to call things off or drop out of something. I’ve never regretted doing that. I’ve never regretted dropping a class or pulling out of an organization. Quitting is good for you! Embrace it because it gives you more time to do other things or be better. You’ll be better rested, and you’ll feel better. Don’t be afraid to quit things!

M: What do you think is the difference between quitting when you’re uncomfortable in these ways, but also when is it a learning curve? Like being in spaces or talking about things you don’t know about, but should be talking about. People are like, “I don’t wanna talk about that. That’s hard on me.” So how would you distinguish it?

B: Case by case. Also you have to try things first. With AAA, we stuck it out for two years.

M: That’s true. But the ideals were still not aligned with what we wanted.

B: I think if you just set concretely a deadline for yourself. Like, “If I’m not feeling well by this date, I’ll reconsider.”

M: And locating what you want to learn and what you want to get out of it. It’s like, “Wait I want to know more—so how can I have these conversations?” Or, “It’s still hard but I’m not getting anywhere. This is not cool.”

B: How are you gonna stay in touch with people after graduating?

M: Oh my gosh. That’s really hard. My friend and I just downloaded Draw With Friends!

B: Like on OMGPop? It used to be called I’m in Like With You?

J: Is this just the game where you draw things and people guess what it is?

M: Yes!!

B: Oh, also online pool. I play online pool with my friends in high school. So many ways to stay connected.

M: But yeah, this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about. I’m really scared. But I’m also trying to identify what I’m scared about, you know? I think I’ve gotten really lucky at Barnard I really feel like there’s a community. I walk around campus and I’m like, “Oh my god, friends!” Or even places or whatever. I’m trying to locate where my anxiety is. Is it that I’m scared that I won’t be able to keep up with my current social life, the people that I talk to? Or am I afraid that I’m going to lose touch with some of my core people who’ve really gotten me through Barnard? But then it’s like, if they’ve gotten you through Barnard they’re probably gonna get you through the rest of your life, you know? So I don’t know. I’m still working through exactly what is making me scared and why I want to keep in touch with people.

I feel like there are people I specifically text when something happens. Like, “OH my god this just happened.” And then there are some people I retrospectively talk to. I don’t know what that difference is. Will that change as well? Who I hit up right away versus hit up in a long email afterwards?

Which leads me to thinking about methods— pen pals, emails, letters. I really love crafting, but writing like 20 letters sounds really serious to me. So I don’t know. I think for me to part of showing care for someone is just being with them and talking to them, or through a realy personal letter or text message or email. But that takes so much time. I don’t know.

J: What about you Bill?

B: I’ll be in New York City, which means that a lot of people will be here already. Frequently, when I want to see them, [I try to reach out] at least once a month. That’s a weird quota to set but I do have to have a hard number or something or else I just let it slip my mind. In terms of other people, for people who graduated from here already I Skype them for several hours at least once every month or two.

M: You have a system!

B: Yeah it’s become systematic. I didn’t write it down, but at some point during these months I was like, “Wow I haven’t seen this person in a while.” I think it accumulates even when you’re not thinking about it. Like I’ve been thinking about this person and I should just let them know!

M: Woah, I feel I have the opposite problem where I’m constantly trying to hit up people. I’m like, “I haven’t talked to you in a week. I haven’t talked to you since two weeks ago.” And then I forget to check in with myself. I feel like I’m more concerned with my time with my friends than time with myself.

J: So what are you both up to after graduation?

B: I applied to law school and I was like, “OK depending on how I feel when emails come back, I’ll say yes or no.” And then I got the emails and I was not feeling it. So I hit up my parents and I was like, “Hey parents, I don’t want to go to law school.” And they’re still working through that.

But for the upcoming year I’m going to be a paralegal in the city to definitively rule out lawyering from my life. In the meantime, I’ll apply to MFA programs in fiction writing which is, interestingly, something I’ve diligently denied myself throughout my life across all sorts of careers I’ve always been like hey, maybe I’ll do this during the day but at night I’ll be writing. But since writing is something that’s been an abiding interest and carried through, I’m going to pursue it seriously.

M:  I have decided that I’m going to do a fellowship with the Congressional Hunger Center. It’s called the Emerson Fellows and it’s a yearlong fellowship doing anti-hunger and anti-poverty work. They specifically do it through an antiracist framework. The idea is that they partner with these community organizations and it’s a spectrum. Some organizations are already thinking about race and location are factors in hunger work. And then organizations that are not, but have the potential to start thinking about it.

So yeah! It’ll be a yearlong fellowship. The first half they place me somewhere, I don’t know yet where.

I knew I had to do it because last week they sent us this form that was really thoughtful. They asked us, what communities do you feel most comfortable working with, most passionate working with? What skills do you want to work on? Do you want to do like data analysis versus like qualitative interviews or workshopping. I was like, yes I need people please do not put me in the back with numbers. They also asked, what sort of resources do you need around to remain well, like food options? Salons? Different stores?

J: That is really thoughtful!

M: Yeah, right? I was like, never in my life will my employer ask me what I need. I’m really excited! The first half they place me anywhere. The second half I will be in DC. I mean, overall, I’m interested— I like them because I think they’re asking a lot of the same questions that I’m asking. How to do and if you can do anti-oppressive work through non profits or through policy?

Also I’m excited that the second half is in DC, so I get policy training to probably rule out policy stuff— I’m pretty sure I don’t want to do it but it’s so important. So I still feel compelled, but I also know I hate it.

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