By Amy Gong Liu, WiSci STEAM Camp Counselor
The energy in the room was electrically tense. Some of us fiddled with our papers, and others looked down at their laps. We were doing round-table introductions, and much too soon, it was my turn. I was bewildered as to why I felt so nervous; there's nothing I love more than public speaking. But my words felt like they were trapped in my throat.
I'm the youngest counselor/program facilitator at this year's WiSci STEAM Camp, a three-week long intensive STEM + Arts program for 120 talented African and American girls: I could almost be a camper myself; having just graduated from high school. Most of the other counselors had quite a few years on me, and were all dedicated, well-respected leaders in their own communities. Sitting at the table, I felt intimidated beyond reason and very out of place.
How would I even connect with these women, given the strong cultural divide that existed between each one of us? This year, we have a wonderfully diverse blend of leadership for the camp, five American counselors and seven African ones. But it's also difficult to bond with someone, raised in a country with values very different from those of your own, immediately. Sometimes, a counselor would make a joke in Kinyarwanda or French, two of Rwanda's native languages, to a fellow friend, and I'd feel completely left in the dust.
I was afraid that I didn't belong. Nervous thoughts ran through my head as I cleared my throat a couple of times to try and force the words that were lodged in the back of my mouth out. Suddenly, I caught the gaze of Alodie, a counselor from Rwanda, and she gave me a small smile. Encouraged, I began shakily.
"I'm Amy. I'm eighteen, and I'm from the San Francisco Bay Area. I'm here because I'm passionate about women, and communities, and local change..." A lot of the women looked up, and I'd realized that I'd struck a common vein between us. "And I'm beyond excited to see what we can do in the next couple of weeks for our campers, for STEM, and for ourselves." The women sitting across from me nodded solemnly. Alodie smiled and said: "And you're very, very welcome in our country - Rwanda is lucky to have all of us here."
Things began to fall in place after that as I began to find little connections that transcended cultural barriers. Bella and I bonded over a long conversation about the advantages of knowing multiple coding languages. Vicky, passionate about graphic/product design and aesthetic value, helped me pick out a beautifully patterned traditional Rwandan dress. And all of us spent lunch in an extremely heated debate about Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj's apparent feud on social media. By the end of the day, nobody would've said that the women uncomfortably introducing themselves in the morning were the same as the ones in the cohesive group at night, laughing and joking together.
It's only been one day here and we haven't even started official programming, but I've already learned so much - all from the people surrounding me. It's easy to come in with walls surrounding our identities and labels that we use to define ourselves, and it's easy to shy away from experiences that push us past the boundaries of what we're used to. But this camp is about learning - not just from the incredibly stimulating STEM programming that is the backbone of the camp, but also from the women and girls sitting next to you. It is only from discovering human connections from the people around us that we begin to understand ourselves and our leadership abilities better.
On Saturday, our campers will begin to arrive. No doubt some of them will mirror my feelings in the meeting room exactly - they'll feel intimidated, apprehensive, and definitely like they don't belong. Hopefully, this time, I will be the one to pull them aside and start a conversation about the common bond that links all of us here at WiSci -- a love for women's empowerment, leadership, and community engagement. I'll tell her that she belongs. And maybe we'll even watch a Taylor Swift video together.
Amy Gong Liu is a rising freshman at Columbia University. She currently serves as a National Teen Advisor for Girl Up, a campaign under the United Nations Foundation that advocates for the health, safety, and empowerment of girls internationally. Amy is passionate about international human rights, political activism, and women's issues.