Shen Does it All

Chris Shen, 20, photographed at Mt. SAC. Luis Olguin/SAConScene

Chris Shen, 20, photographed at Mt. SAC. Luis Olguin/SAConScene

20-year-old Chris Shen shows every sign of being an overachiever. He is the president of the Culture Shock club, a student ambassador for Student Services and a former Associated Students senator, among other things.

“I have always been a hardworking and dedicated student,” he said.

However, Shen, who is majoring in business and sociology, is not your ordinary genius. Leaving footprints in nearly all dimensions of his community, Shen is arguably one of the brightest students to have ever walked through the doors of Mt. SAC.

“I want to give back by motivating students to make the most of their educational experience through involvement in the campus community and empowering them to achieve success academically and personally,” he said.

To document everything in which Shen is involved would inevitably lead to writing a novel. That alone speaks volumes about Shen, who boasts a near perfect GPA.

As the president of Culture Shock, a club founded by a group of honors sociology students, Shen organizes community events and fundraisers for various nonprofit organizations, such as the Inland Valley Hope Partners in Pomona and Planet Rehab in San Dimas.

He does this in an effort to promote diversity and reach out to the surrounding communities through service.

“I aim to educate others about various cultures and raise awareness, seeking to exemplify the principle of unity in diversity by eradicating social fears and ignorance. I also encourage students from all backgrounds to learn from each other, interact with each other and come together as one to serve our community,” he said.

Shen’s decision to work for Student Services was made along the same lines—to help students.

As an ambassador, he connects students in need to resources and opportunities on campus.

“I reach out to students on campus who have the greatest disparity in student success,” he said.

In contrast to many students who scramble to take on a position of service merely to stack their résumé, the motivation behind Shen’s passion for service lies deeper.

Due to his family’s financial hardships and the constant bullying he received throughout elementary and middle school for being feminine, Shen made it his obligation to help others.

“Despite my commitment as a student, I have faced significant adversities that have affected my academic achievement,” he said.

Growing up in a middle-class family, Shen’s father had to work long hours to be able to support his family of six, which included taking care of his grandmother and uncle. Unfortunately, the money situation was about to get tighter.

“When I was 10, my father got laid off,” he said.

Because Shen’s sister was attending university at the time, his parents had to sell the house to pay for her education. Seeing how desperate his family was to make ends meet, Shen felt compelled to help out in any way he could.

“At 10 years old, I began to sell old toys I once treasured on eBay to help pay for the expenses at home,” he said.

Added stress was placed on his shoulders when Shen was bullied and ridiculed for being feminine throughout his younger years.

“Ever since I was four, I knew I was different. When other boys liked playing outside in the dirt, I preferred to walk with girls and pick flowers and catch ladybugs,” he said. “I naturally related with girls more than boys, which I didn’t understand at the time.”

When one of his peers called him “gay” for the first time, his heart sank. Thus, when he realized his attraction to boys in middle school, he did everything in his power to ignore that part of him by acting straight.

Although his family was fairly supportive of him being gay, Shen still felt he did not have anyone to talk to.

“I felt a sense of cultural marginalization. Growing up in a traditional Taiwanese household where sexuality is not discussed openly, I had no one to talk to about my struggles,” he said. Lonely and without support, Shen moved around and attended three different high schools. By the time graduation rolled around, he had fallen into a depression. He chose not to attend college even though he had been accepted to a number of universities.

“I could not find it within myself to attend college,” he said.

The arts are what saved Shen from his low spirits.   

“I turned my pain into art through performing and music. Expression through the arts was my outlet to express myself freely without fear of being judged or ridiculed,” he said.

Provoked by his situation, Shen became very active in his band, Desiah, which he auditioned to join the summer before his junior year.

“Part of my inspiration to support LGBT youth through the arts comes from being in my band,” he said.

With his band members by his side, Shen performed at various places all across the country to help those who were hurting. Some of those places include cancer treatment centers, children’s hospitals, VA hospitals and homeless shelters.

He is still giving back to his community using Desiah as his platform.   

“Recently, we performed at the candlelight vigil that was held to honor the lives lost in the San Bernardino shooting rampage, the Autism Speaks Walk at the Rose Bowl and the Prayer for World Peace Ceremony at Hsi Lai Temple,” he said.  

Shen says his participation in Desiah has given form to his dream of starting a nonprofit organization for LGBT youth. He intends to take his first steps in reaching his dream by applying for an internship program at Ovation School for the Performing Arts, a nonprofit school co-owned by the managers of Desiah.  

“I want to learn the ins and outs of running a nonprofit and consult with my managers to get advice for opening a business. It will make me feel closer to achieving my dream,” he said.

While Desiah helped Shen mentally during his bout of depression, he had to find a way to pay his bills. Hence, Shen pursued acting—something he had been dabbling in from a young age—to ease his financial burden.

“I worked as an actor for various commercials, television shows and movies,” he said.

During his gap year, Shen also began to learn about the part of him he had swept under the rug in the eighth grade—his sexual identity. He read stories about other gays, which showed him that there were many others who were struggling.

“Not wanting to fall into a downward spiral, I began to heal, accept and love myself for who I was,” he said.

Shen used the articles he had read in order to help his traditional Taiwanese parents understand where he was coming from. And in the process of doing so, he understood the importance of a college education.

“I wanted to conquer my struggles and reach a better place, so I could be the voice for those who are hurting. In order for me to do this, I knew I had to get an education,” he said.

Having witnessed the struggles his family experienced when his sister attended a university for all four years of her undergraduate education, Shen knew he would not be able to go to a university right away. After doing extensive research, he came to the conclusion that attending a community college would be an excellent start to his path toward higher education.

“I realized that going to community college would allow me to expand my horizons while still working part-time to pay for my classes,” he said.

Inspired to make a difference after taking a year off school, Shen enrolled at Mt. SAC and started off his first semester of college on the right foot. He devoted the bulk of his time volunteering for Associated Students, the student government organization on campus, eventually being appointed the Elections Senator.    

“As a senator, I made it my obligation to serve as the voice of the LGBT community on our campus,” he said.

Shen reached out to the Genders & Sexualities Alliance club president to assist him in requesting funds from A.S. to host events, which helped make GSA club one of the most active and involved clubs on campus.

He also took the initiative to meet with the Board of Trustees to raise the issue of the lack of LGBT support services on campus.    

“I proceeded to continue this dialogue with other staff and faculty members by serving as the student representative on multiple governance committees,” he said.  

The efforts of Shen and many others spurred the implementation of a Pride Center on campus, making Mt. SAC one of only a handful of community colleges in the nation to have one.

With the support of his fellow senators, Shen also wrote and passed resolutions which allowed for the approval of a gender and ethnic studies department and gender-neutral restrooms on campus.

His performance as a student leader paid off when he was selected as one of six students to represent the college at the California Community College Student Affairs Association Student Leadership Conference held in San Jose.

“At the conference, I networked with student leaders and advisers from community colleges across California and advocated for student success initiatives,” he said.

Taking note of his contributions to Mt. SAC, Dr. Audrey Yamagata-Noji, vice president of Student Services, invited Shen to partake in the Minority Male Initiative (MMI), a single slice of the college’s push for student equity.

“In MMI, I represent Asian-American LGBT males on campus. I voice my concerns about the availability of access and resources for my fellow minority male students to improve the retention rates of our students,” he said.

Shen’s involvement in MMI has inspired him to reactivate Culture Shock club, which was inactive until he came along, and the list of his achievements goes on and on.

Throughout his two years at Mt. SAC, Shen has helped countless students excel, not to mention himself. He hopes to continue his record of service for the Asian American and LGBT communities at his transfer institution.

“After transferring, I hope to engage in the social and economic realities around Asian-American and LGBT communities,” he said. “I want to be able to disrupt and challenge the stigma and prejudice towards the LGBT community by preventing legislation from limiting the rights of myself and my brothers and sisters while also pushing for equal rights and protection of gender expression by promoting equitable social policies.”

Shen credits his nontraditional experiences for his academic and personal success.

“I believe it is what I have learned from my struggles and hardships that have led me to become the person I am today, motivated and inspired to make a difference,” he said.

Never one to settle, Shen is also considering acting as a side career. After all, his proudest moment was when he appeared on Modern Family because he liked his “moment of fame.”  

But on a more genuine note, Shen enjoys life with a side of carpe diem—he yearns to make the most of the present time.

He added, “I’m proud every moment because I’m alive and breathing and happy to be here.”