What I loved about the University of Michigan is it was just small enough and just big enough for me to meet people from across the country and throughout the world.
On any given week, I could attend a wide array of events that might include going with my classmate to visit Hillel on campus, attending a discussion about the writings of bell hooks, and participating in activities like those of Project Lighthouse — all helping to expand our horizons and making us more productive citizens in this University world, but also in the world at large.
I grew up in Queens, New York, one of the most diverse counties in the country. But as a daughter of immigrants, being Asian American sometimes to me, as a kid, was sort of a burden.
There weren’t that many Asians in the school I attended and sometimes I was embarrassed about my background because it was always a little different than the people around me. My mom would pack me dumplings or fried rice for lunch when I just wanted PB & J or grilled cheese. I had to participate in cultural events that I didn’t really understand and that always seemed different than the Girl Scout events that my friends went to.
My dad worked in a restaurant. He would wear chef clothes to parent-teacher conferences and I would think, “why can’t my dad dress like the other dads in nice suits?”
Even though I grew up in a diverse environment, I wasn’t necessarily proud of my culture and I didn’t truly understand the blessing that my culture had on me and our communities.
But when I came to U-M, the experiences I had, the people I met, and the classes I attended helped me learn more about my culture and helped me to be proud of it.
I spent one year being a resident advisor at Stockwell and I remember thinking, “I’m the oldest sister in my family, the oldest of, like, 25 cousins, I know what to do.”
But those students taught me more in that one year than I could have ever learned anywhere else. These amazing women came from a spectrum of racial, geographic, and economic diversity. Just listening to their stories and trying to be a responsive “older sister” taught me so much, and those stories continue to carry through in my life.
There will be times students may feel insecure, whether it’s an internship, a job, or a class with prestigious people and fancy sounding titles.
But I will share the advice of my political mentor, my grandma.
She knew I was a shy kid growing up, but she said, “I hope you’re not going in these rooms being all shy and quiet and insecure about your background. I hope you’re taking the stories of people from your community and our neighborhoods, stories that might not sound like the ones that the person next to you is sharing, but stories whose testimonies are just as important — and sometimes even more important — because they might not have anyone else in that room to advocate for them.”
I learned that true and authentic diversity includes being able to listen to others and being able to learn from them.
Right now, there are real challenges that our students are facing. In a time when we cannot seem to agree on a set of “facts,” students are faced with earth-shifting dynamics of a post-Roe world, climate change, an epidemic of gun violence, and trying to figure out who gets to be labeled a “true American.”
Being a Wolverine means not simply accepting the fate of weak and unfair circumstances, but learning to adapt. It’s learning to push the boundaries of complacency so that we can welcome more ideas and more talent.
As Leaders and Best, we are not afraid of the unfamiliar. We will continue to thrive and raise up a more resilient generation of leaders.
Congresswoman Grace Meng, ’97, represents the 6th district of New York in the U.S. House of Representatives. She previously served as an Alumni Association board member.