By: Lillian Lema, Staff Writer
How do you live and work a life that allows you to be content? This question prompted Sarah Chang, former USM AmeriCorps Vista STEM Partnerships Coordinator, to reflect on her life choices..
At the beginning of her college career, Chang was unsure if chemical engineering was the right fit. She was enrolled as a chemical engineering major at Georgia Institute of Technology.
In high school, Chang was intrigued with chemistry and its complex world. It made sense to follow a path involving chemistry, but soon enough she would find out her major was not what she thought it was. “I loved chemistry, but once I realized chemical engineering was not about chemistry I switched to Materials Science Engineering,” Chang said.
Chang’s father wanted her to become a lawyer because he always said “if you know the law, you know how to protect yourself.” However, after taking a pre-law course she was 100% sure law wasn’t her calling and she continued her studies in chemical engineering.
During her senior year of college, Chang decided to study abroad in Budapest, Hungary. Her classes focused on social entrepreneurship. Chang and her classmates had internships with local non-government organizations (NGO). Chang’s time in Budapest allowed time for personal reflection. One of her professors discussed personal values with life and work. “I remember my professor asking ‘how do you live and work a life that allows you to be content?’ which really got me thinking about what was important to me,” Chang said.
After graduating from Georgia Tech she accepted an engineering job in new product development and failure analysis with medical implants. “The job paid well and I was able to financially help my parents,” Chang said. Her father suffered from diabetes. “My dad was sick, so the money was meant for healthcare.”
Chang describes herself as being frugal with her income during her first job. “I was able to pay off my student loans in one year… I didn’t want to spend money on plane tickets to go visit my parents… I didn’t want to spend money,” she said.
But her frugal ways changed when her mother called to tell her that her father had passed away. “Once again, the conversation with my professor about values and what’s important crossed my mind,” Chang said.
Losing a loved one can lead to a time of self-reflection and realization. Chang took a long break to reevaluate her life and the things that matter to her the most. At the end of her break, she decided she wanted her occupation to be more wholehearted. “I wanted to do something that ultimately had a positive input, output… and wasn’t money driven,” Chang said.
Chang volunteered with Cincinnati Sister Cities, a non-profit focused on improving the diverse communities in Cincinnati through culture, education and economic development. She continued to volunteer at other non-profits that aligned with her values.
After some time in Cincinnati, Chang felt that she needed a change and was given the opportunity to be an AmeriCorps Vista which brought her all the way to Maine. It specifically brought her to USM where she worked out of the Service-Learning and Volunteering office in Payson Smith Hall.
According to Chang, some of the work done with AmeriCorps at USM is all focused on alleviating poverty by preparing the youth to be successful in the modern economy through STEM programs.
Chang was specifically involved with creating a positive STEM culture particularly targeting young girls and women, such as STEM Sisters. “In computer science, females make roughly about 20% of the population and in engineering 17% are females,” she said.
STEM Sisters volunteers would design their own after school activities to work with middle and high school students. “We had primarily female students in these leadership roles to normalize girls and women in STEM fields,” Chang said. They hosted computer science and technology takeover events with local middle schools.Chang and other volunteers hosted on campus activities to promote positive connections with STEM by creating pop-up fractals, light up cards, making terrariums, marbling, among other things..
While working with STEM Sisters at different events and schools Chang couldn’t wrap her mind around students lacking confidence in the maths and sciences or creativity. “It doesn’t make sense to me when a student says ‘I’m not good at math and I’m not creative’ because it’s like saying ‘I’m not logical or imaginative,’… that idea is invalid,” Chang said.
Throughout the two and a half years as an AmeriCorps Vista Chang expresses that the best part was to be able to work with students outside of the classroom, getting to know them, and being a witness of students creating opportunities for themselves.