When Sara Fong and Osup Kwon began talking about marriage, Sara knew she would be moving from the San Francisco area to Knoxville, where Osup was attending graduate school. She hoped she would be able to continue working in campus ministry, but God needed to open a place for her.
In her earliest conversation with Area Director Eric Peterson, Eric told Sara that she could be a part of something new. Ann Ding, an alumna of the Vanderbilt Asian American InterVarsity (AAIV) chapter, had volunteered to spend one year planting an AAIV chapter at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK).
AAIV chapter plants are rare. Most AAIV chapters are spin-offs from a larger multiethnic undergrad chapter. But the UTK chapter took root and grew under Ann’s guidance and the visionary leadership of chapter president Jason Chu. When Sara arrived in fall, 2014, there was a job waiting for her.
Working with Asian American students in Tennessee is quite a bit different than working with Asian American students in California. “I’m still learning the nuances,” Sara said. “I knew it would be hard but you still feel how hard it is as you go through it.”
Asian Americans make up only about 3 percent of the Tennessee student body. The ratio is closer to 40 percent in California. Sara is frequently mistaken for an international student.
But she is used to handling cultural differences. She was a Campus Staff Member at the University of California—Berkeley for six years, for two-and-a-half of those she worked with the LaFe chapter. She took over for Javier Tarango-Sho when he went on sabbatical and credits Javier for preparing her well to work with Latino students. “His best advice was, ‘You’re not me, so lead as you are,’” she said. “He was good at giving me simple steps to take to build trust and transition well. I felt empowered by him.”
Sara is using some of those same steps to build trust with the UTK AAIV chapter. Thankfully, the new chapter has lots of leaders.
GETTING HER QUESTIONS ANSWERED
Sara joined InterVarsity as a UC—Berkeley freshman, after she was invited by a friend she had met at church camp. “I went because I was intrigued by manuscript Bible study and I continue to be intrigued by manuscript study,” she said.
After her sophomore year she attended InterVarsity’s Bay Area Urban Project (BAYUP). “That was where things started to make more sense about the bigness of God’s kingdom, and things like shalom, justice, and racial reconciliation all started to be very important to me,” she said. “A lot of the questions I had about whether God was big enough or good enough were answered for me.”
Sara also felt challenged to place her aspirations before God and ask him to lead her into the right career. She realized that she had chosen to be a pre-med student because of the security, financial stability, and prestige that a medical career offers. By the time she was a senior she felt God was calling her on staff with InterVarsity. “I started to realize I really love doing ministry and I want to spend more of my time doing that,” she said.
Helping students grow in their faith and find healing in their lives are parts of doing ministry that Sara enjoys most. Part of the challenge of working with Asian American students at UTK is what Sara calls “colorblind theology,” expressed by students who believe America is a big melting pot and that ethnicity doesn’t matter. “Students often quote, ‘In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free,’ that whole thing,” she said. “But then I discover that many times they were made fun of when they were younger. They have a lot of hurtful experiences of ethnic identity and being Asian.”
Part of Sara’s walk with God as an undergraduate was coming to terms with her own ethnic identity. With both Japanese and Chinese ancestors, that included acknowledging the trials of World War II internment camps and the Angel Island immigration experience. “I started to see God saying, ‘Your history matters, it's affected you,’” she said. “The more I explored it the more I started to feel healed.” She is hoping for the same healing for the students she’s working with.
The AAIV chapter is not the only new InterVarsity chapter at UTK. Shelly Scott is planting a multiethnic chapter. And a Collegiate Black and Christian chapter has been thriving for several years. Sara said all three chapters joined together in an evangelistic outreach this October called the Awesome Proxe. “We had some people walk up and say, ‘What group are you? There’s black students here, white students, Asian students. We never see this on campus, what is this?’ Doing this together was a witness for God,” she said.
Sara hopes that InterVarsity will be able to help lead the dialogue for racial reconciliation on the UTK campus as a part of its Christian witness. She’s starting with some simple steps.