300 attend ITASA conference

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Photo by Alana Thyng.

Nearly 300 students from 30 colleges descended on New Haven this weekend for the 2014 Intercollegiate Taiwanese-American Students Association Conference.

Hosted by ITASA, a nonprofit organization that aims to connect students to build a stronger Taiwanese-American community, the conference featured workshops, keynote speakers and social events about service and activism. The theme of this year’s conference, which was codirected by Kevin Chen ’14 and Monica Chen ’15, was “Work in Progress,” and organizers said they hoped the event would inspire attendees to put ideas into action and create positive change.

“Our vision for our conference was that every attendee would leave with some tangible idea of how they would make an impact in their school or community,” Monica Chen said. “We really wanted to have workshops that were engaging and let people think for themselves.”

Kevin Chen said many of the speakers invited were Yale alumni or Yale affiliates. The organizers wanted to show that the Taiwanese-American community at Yale has made a lot of strides, he said.

The conference was split into three sections — “Blueprint,” “Calling All Workers” and “Abstract to Concrete” — and each section featured activities pertaining to each of the steps in the creation process.

One of the keynote speakers for the conference was Peggy Kuo ’85, deputy commissioner of the NYC Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, who is known for prosecuting war crimes in the Hague and obtaining a verdict that set a historical precedent by establishing rape as a crime against humanity. In her address, Kuo spoke about how her Taiwanese-American identity and interest in activism helped shape her career.

Andrew Yang — founder and CEO of Venture for America, a company that helps undergraduates become entrepreneurs — gave the final keynote address, urging students to be unafraid of deviating from the popular paths of graduate school and careers in finance and to pursue entrepreneurship, activism and service.

In America, Yang said too many college graduates shy away from the uncertainty of startups because they yearn for financial stability. But Yang warned against putting off dreams of entrepreneurship for a more stable post-graduate position.

“If you go to law school and practice law for some years, you become a different person,” Yang said. “If you read contracts all day, you just upgraded your contract ability. Your ability to make a million dollars goes down.”

Yang recalled one point in his career when his company crashed and he owed investors hundreds of thousands of dollars. He learned through this experience that opportunities do not necessarily arise in a linear fashion, he said.

Rather than following established paths, more smart people in America should build companies and create jobs, he said.

“There’s a saying in Taiwan that if you throw a rock on the street, you’ll hit an entrepreneur,” Yang said.

ITASA attendees engaged in workshops on Friday and Saturday, including one called “Food for Thought,” in which students learned about sustainable food from Joann Lo ’97, executive director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, and met the first cook of Silliman dining hall, Stuart Comen.

In a workshop entitled “Translating a Dream, Building a Movement,” Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart, the 26-year-old founder of a vegan fashion house, spoke about her experiences in establishing her business. Named “the Rebel of Fashion Week” by CNN in 2013, Hilgart explained her mission to take animals out of the garment industry and develop apparel that is eco- and animal-friendly.

“I spent my life savings and five really long intense years trying to develop something so that you don’t need to sacrifice anything to live a compassionate life,” Hilgart said.

Students interviewed who attended workshops and keynote addresses said they found the speakers inspiring and appreciated the opportunity to be exposed to careers they otherwise may not have thought to explore.

Andrew Luu, a student from Johns Hopkins University, said Kuo’s keynote speech was easy to relate to because the students in attendance were all ambitious people. Kuo’s message about chipping away the noise to figure out what is most important in life resonated with him, he added.

Other students said they were excited to network with speakers, workshop leaders and other students.

“Bob Wu, the president of Taiwanese-American Citizens League, said that Asian Americans should step up and take a role to build a community for ourselves,” said Jessica Yeh, a student at New York University. “After going to the workshop by the Tzu Chi Foundation, I really want to join the NYU Chapter of Tzu Chi.”

Next year’s ITASA conference will be held at the University of Pennsylvania.

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