This month’s Alumni Spotlight is written jointly by Douglas Lee ’21 and Julianne Vaughan ’21, who represent their class as Class Agents. Douglas and Julianne are currently in their freshman year of college at Northwestern University and Boston University, respectively.
The Class of 2021 will always be remembered for our resilience. Born during the SARS outbreak, we could have never foreseen that 17 years later, our world would once again go into lockdown. While we were lucky to have a “normal” first semester our senior year, a surge in COVID cases in May shut down any hope of having graduation and prom. It felt as though the culmination of our hard work through our elementary, middle, and high school years had led to nothing. As we said our goodbyes to Taiwan, we were at least happy that we could have a normal freshman year at college.
As soon as we set foot in America, we had to acclimate to our new environment. In particular, we were shocked to see so many people walking around the airport. People everywhere were not wearing masks, which was in stark contrast to the streets of Taiwan. Douglas became skeptical of Northwestern’s plan to go in-person. Julianne was also doubtful that despite indoor mask mandates, people would not be cautious about social distancing in large gatherings.
But soon enough, as freshman orientation began, we adjusted to this new sense of “normalcy.” While there were still a small number of reported cases on our campuses each week, we began to have a positive outlook on our freshman year. Douglas was pleased that the state of Illinois issued a statewide mask mandate. Julianne was pleasantly surprised by how her peers prioritized pandemic safety over individual freedoms. The majority of students wore masks properly, even outdoors, and students took contact tracing seriously and would choose to abstain from club bondings and parties. Knowing that most students on campus were vaccinated calmed Julianne’s worries, and she felt welcomed knowing that her peers cared nearly as much about the pandemic as people did in Taiwan.
After one quarter/semester of college, we are in complete agreement that TAS prepared us extremely well to handle the academic rigor of college. Even in a quarter system school, where classes are supposed to be more fast-paced, Douglas has not found any trouble keeping up with his work. We have found that our peers in other universities also have the same feelings. Douglas’s first-ever class in college was legal studies. As Douglas began learning about the Constitution, he was reminded of his AP US Government class taught by Mr. Williams. Having studied the American justice system at TAS, Douglas found the class to be extremely manageable. In fact, Douglas actually had read some of the required readings for this class in his AP English Language and Composition class. Douglas believes that researching and debating philosophical issues in AP seminar provided him with a strong foundation that has served him well in his college classes.
In contrast, Boston University has a more traditional semester-based calendar system similar to TAS. Mainly taking introductory courses, Julianne was shocked when she discovered the number of free hours she had each day, because she was used to the time-consuming work of the IB Diploma and the rigorous courses she took in TAS.
Possibly one of Julianne’s favorite parts of college academic life is the wide variety of courses. There were over 50 different topics to choose from in a mandatory writing course for first-year students. Selecting a class called “Commerce and Character,” Julianne dissected economic philosophy readings by renowned philosophers, from Plato and Aristotle to Smith and Marx. Through unfiltered class discussions three times a week, she debated the differing morals and values taught under different economic systems. As a result, Julianne felt that she was learning subjects she was genuinely interested in.
The most significant adjustment we had to make was in regards to our social life. For the first time in years, we both had to make entirely new friends in a completely new environment. Unlike high school, we didn’t have the safety net of meeting people through mutual friends, and Julianne was intimidated at the prospect of finding her “friends for life” in a school of over 16,000 students. Despite this, the thrill and excitement of meeting new people rushed through most freshmen, and the first month of college, we both heard hundreds of “what’s your name, where are you from, and what’s your major?” In both our schools, freshmen would knock on each other’s door just to say hello. In Julianne’s dorm, which consisted of 3 towers, students would even put sticky notes on their windows to communicate with students living in the other towers. Although exciting, this period of new beginnings gradually faded away, and freshmen slowly settled into their strongest friendships. So many people Julianne met during those first few weeks never reached out again, but she settled in nicely, satisfied with the new relationships she made.
Extracurriculars have also been a big part of our new college life. Like at TAS, there is always a big club fair at the beginning of the year. But unlike TAS, many of the clubs at Northwestern require an application just to be a member. At BU, only a few organizations, such as fraternities and sororities, required applications just for membership. Still, the significantly large number of students on campus meant that auditions or try-outs for leadership positions were highly selective.
Douglas was immediately drawn to the Northwestern Mock Trial team. This year, a bar owner is on trial for allegedly burning down their bar to cash out their fire insurance policy. While Douglas never did Mock Trial at TAS, he believes his years of MUN and Speech and Debate prepared him well. After a written application and a competitive tryout process, Douglas was one of ten freshmen selected to join the team.
To Douglas’s surprise, a graduate student in the film school was filming a documentary on Northwestern’s Mock Trial Team. After meeting Douglas, he selected Douglas to be the main character of the documentary. After filming Douglas at two competitions and consulting with his Emmy award-winning professor, he changed the subject of his documentary to the life of an international student in the US. Douglas will now be featured in a documentary project that will follow his college experience for the next three years.
Douglas is also exploring his passion for law by working in the Deportation Research Clinic on campus. Douglas has been busy filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for the Attorney General of Illinois to turn over documents.
At BU, Julianne explored some of the previous interests she had in high school. After joining a theater club, she participated in a 24-hour theater event, where a script was written, props were made, lines were memorized, and the show was performed, all in 24 hours. She quickly fell in love with college theater, because students could create and perform in ways Julianne had never experienced before. In shows, both student-written and not, performers discussed and critiqued controversial topics such as abusive relationships, organized religion, and sexuality, while stripping down in underwear and cursing on stage.
However, auditioning for roles in college theater was significantly more competitive. Having performed lead roles in TAS musicals and plays, Julianne was shocked when she did not receive a callback for the fall musical production, even for the ensemble role. Initially feeling discouraged, she reminded herself that in such a large and talented theater community, she had to work much harder to secure a role in a show. Knowing that there are many more theater opportunities than in high school, she is keeping her head high, excited and passionate about her new future experiences in college theater.
Julianne, currently majoring in environmental analysis and policy, also searched for clubs related to sustainability at BU, finding a large community of tree-huggers and environmentalists. She is now in a co-ed environmental honors fraternity, Epsilon Eta, where they meet once a week for clean-ups, fundraisers, or alumni networking events. She has been introduced to many environmental organizations, and in December, she started working as an intern for the US Coalition on Sustainability.
Our first quarter/semester of school has gone by in a blink of an eye. Through it all, we realized how lucky we were to have gone to TAS. The opportunities and resources TAS provided students are on par with what we have seen in our universities. We have also realized how large the TAS family is. During Douglas’s first week on campus, he ran into a fellow journalism student at church whose grandma worked as a music teacher at TAS in 1967-1968.
As we write this article, Northwestern has shifted classes online for the first two weeks of the semester, and BU, while remaining in-person, has changed its COVID-safety policies. While we are uncertain about our future in college during a pandemic, we know that the Class of 2021 will be equipped to face any challenges.