"U&I mentoring gave me a positive feeling about helping someone. So I get to continue the momentum to try to help more people.”
Iris Zheng, former U&I mentor and Youth ServiceCorps Board President, is just one of thousands of youths QARI has served over the past decade in its Youth programs.
When Iris came to the U.S. at age 13, she struggled to fit in. She had learned some English back in China, but she still had to take ESL classes from 8th grade up through her sophomore year of high school. Iris also found it hard to adjust to American culture and social groups at her school. The only friends she made at first were fellow first-generation immigrant students. In her sophomore year, on a friend’s suggestion, Iris joined QARI to get involved with her local community and meet more people. She began helping with decorations for the Lunar New Year Festival that year, as dozens of our Youth ServiceCorps volunteers do each year when January comes around. It was at QARI that Iris first began coming out of her shell. “The people I met at QARI, they were really friendly,” Iris recalls. She was comfortable talking with them. “The friendly environment that I felt, helped me to be more open to other people.”
Today Iris is a senior at Bentley University majoring in Actuarial Science. She is active on campus with numerous leadership roles, serving as President of the Math Club and Public Relations Coordinator at the Association of Chinese Students, in addition to being a mentor for minority underclassmen. Iris also works as a math tutor at Bentley for undergrads needing help on complex assignments. Speaking on the phone with us she comes across as friendly and hospitable, patiently answering all questions. Iris credits much of her social growth and development to the years she spent volunteering with QARI in high school.
“At first, I think I wanted to volunteer because I heard other people say that it was a good thing to volunteer during high school,” Iris says, “and that’s why I first volunteered with QARI. But after participating in one of their events, you feel that you can help people through the event.” Iris liked volunteering so much with QARI that she joined them again for a day of service with Cradles to Crayons, a nonprofit organizing toy and clothing donations to low-income children. Later that year Iris applied for and was elected to join the student-led Youth Board overseeing all YSC volunteer activities.
“I feel like I’m doing something right,” Iris says, reflecting on how she became more involved with QARI’s outreach to local Asians. “I’m helping people adapt to this new environment.”
As her time at QARI grew, Iris continued to try new things through the YSC and learn new skills. She met more people from other backgrounds, including second-generation immigrant students and non-immigrant locals at the popular Festivals. Over the summer she volunteered to help set up QARI’s annual August Moon Festival and co-taught a Survival English class for Chinese-speaking elders to help them learn basic words for grocery shopping or having day-to-day conversations.
“I wanted to become a teacher since I was little, so that fulfills part of my dream,” Iris says. While teaching the Survival English class, she also discovered a desire to empower others from Asian immigrant backgrounds with the same skills she remembers finding difficult a few years ago.
“Since I learned English, it’s like [with] me for them to learn English. I can feel the same way as them.”
Iris also became a U&I Mentor for a young first-generation student who, like her, was shy being in a new country. “When I talked to her at first, she didn’t talk much. As we interacted more, and I talked to her more, she opened up.” When her mentee shared interpersonal challenges in her life, Iris let her express her feelings and tried to serve as a role model: “I was not telling her what to do, but I tried to direct her to think more positively.”
In recognition of the work she did across many projects in the YSC, Iris became the President of the Youth Board in her senior year. She credits this leadership opportunity with helping her later overcome a common barrier to social success among first-generation immigrant youths: “It definitely helped when I started my college life, that I could speak up more to people and not be nervous about [not] being a native English speaker. I could step up to gain a leadership role instead of feeling like I should just follow other people’s orders.”
In addition to gaining confidence and public speaking skills that she carried with her throughout college, Iris was touched by her experience mentoring for QARI and reflects that it has also remained a part of her work in the world. “After U&I mentoring, I got involved on campus with a mentoring program, Alana. We get to pair up with freshmen who are minorities,” she says. “U&I mentoring gave me a positive feeling about helping someone. So I get to continue the momentum to try to help more people.”
After graduation, Iris plans to continue supporting Asian and Chinese communities while pursuing a career in the insurance industry. She already has a full-time job offer from John Hancock Financial Services. When asked what advice she would give Asian youths seeking their path in America, she says, “Don’t try to belittle yourself. Just have confidence, and try to do what you can do to help the community.”