Students in Service and Leadership at Harvard

Story of Me: The Harvard-Radcliffe Chinese Students Association

I am often asked about the purpose of CSA[1], and my response always falls somewhere along the lines of “it exists to create a community for those who care about Chinese culture.” A diplomatic and sufficient answer, for sure, but what does it really mean? What, specifically, does that community look like—is it just parties and mixers, or is it a more personal, meaningful connection?  For whom, specifically, is it for—only those who strongly identify with their Chinese background, or are we also responsible for those who just happen to be Chinese/Chinese American? And do we have a mission beyond that? Should we be responsible for advocating for the Asian American community, writ large? I don’t really know.

Part of the reason these questions remain unanswered is because of the abnormal role that cultural organizations play in Harvard’s ecosystem of extracurriculars. It’s not a pre-professional group, not a place to acquire connections and marketable skills to put on your resume. It’s not a conference or competition, where you have a concrete, tangible goal to work toward. It’s not prestigious, nor exclusive, nor exorbitantly wealthy. It exists for its members’ intangible, personal needs, and thus, is in conflict with Harvard’s often superficial, hierarchal, competitive ethos—and as such, we get confused; we have nowhere to look to for examples of best practices, and just follow, blindly, the routine that previous leadership followed.

If we were a smaller organization, this wouldn’t really be an issue. We could just go on doing our thing and no one would notice enough to be dissatisfied. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. We are the largest cultural group on campus, and as such, are responsible for the most potentially disparate population. We have members who want to advocate for political causes, members who want to reconnect with Chinese culture, as well as members who just want to party. It’s hard to cater to all of those needs, because if you let any one segment down (for example, the politically active ones), that’s a significant number of dissatisfied students.

As President, this is a lot of pressure to be under, the possibility of having over 800 students say, “You are not serving me well.” Past presidents have often cut their losses, picking a project that they’re interested in (for example, the President in 2018 was very interested in Chinese pop music/media and focused efforts on inviting speakers to campus). I, of course, have my own passion projects, certain fields that I care more about than others. I can’t help but feel guilty, however, at the idea of this massive organization shifting focuses at the whim of whoever is President. That seems selfish, disrespectful toward are diverse membership, and impractical—depriving us of the ability to draw upon our decades of institutional memory.

It is my goal, then, to determine a concrete set of goals for CSA. To formulate a mission statement, central tenets, pillars—whatever form of organizational goals—that will outlast my tenure. It will not be easy to set these goals, to ascertain the desires and expectations of a group of over 800 students and, moreover, to come up with ways to satisfy them. I think, however, it will be valuable, not only toward informing our membership as to what exactly we do, but also for leadership—so that future generations of CSA Presidents, when asked, can articulate exactly what CSA does, and be proud of the fact that they do so.
[1] Technically, the full name is the Harvard-Radcliffe Chinese Students Association, officially abbreviated HRCSA—but everyone just calls it CSA

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