As the child of immigrants, Kelly Liang has always felt herself leaning on different sides of her identity.
Yet unlike other Chinese-Americans strongly influenced by two cultures — that of their parents' and of their birthland — Liang's worldview has also been shaped by the Latino diasporas of her native Miami.
Growing up she would spend hours at her grandmother’s convenience store outside of Calle Ocho, the historic heart of the city’s large Cuban-American population. There, a colorful stream of customers inspired the Notre Dame senior to ponder questions of ethnicity and culture early on.
Liang’s complex identity is what makes her “interesting”, she says. And it also gives her a deep understanding of belonging and community.
“I was hesitant at first of being part of the Latino community at Notre Dame, because when you look at me your first thought might be ‘what are you doing here?,’” she says. “But there’s so many things I find in common across Asian and Latino cultures.”
Liang is one of four students chosen for the inaugural cohort of the Latino Studies Scholarship Program, an initiative started by the Institute for Latino Studies in 2017. The LSSP program, a merit-based, leadership scholarship for undergraduate students, admitted through the early and regular admissions process, is designed to attract and shape key leaders working to support and empower Latino communities. It is the only merit scholarship of its kind offered by a top tier research institution in the U.S.
Thanks to the resources provided by ILS and other groups on campus, Liang, an Accountancy major, has been able to position herself for a future career in nonprofit management. It is a path she traces back to high school, when she volunteered with migrant farmworkers and their children, and which she continued at Notre Dame by volunteering with the preschool program at local nonprofit La Casa de Amistad.
"Our Latino Studies Scholars are chosen without regard to income or race/ethnicity: anyone is eligible who commits themselves to better understanding and serving Latino communities,” says Professor Luis Fraga, ILS Director and Joseph and Elizabeth Robbie Professor of Political Science. “Kelly Liang is an example of someone who we know will be a leader working on behalf of Latino communities throughout her professional career. We are so proud to count her among our inaugural cohort of LSSP scholarship recipients."
During the summer of 2019, she participated in an International Summer Service Learning Program in Guatemala through the Center for Social Concerns. The experience solidified her conviction that her passion and future lay in transforming the lives of others through nonprofit work.
In the city of Santa Maria Nebaj, she partnered with local social entrepreneurs to bolster after-school programs for the area’s largely indigenous and rural population, focusing especially on elementary school children. Liang came up with the idea for a composting project, for which she showed both adults and students how to use kitchen waste as crop fertilizer. Another student on site with her worked on a new library.
“You are always hearing and seeing in the media, these negative pictures of ‘those people’ in Central America and how they are living,” Liang says. “I found the reality of it was completely different...I didn’t feel scared. I experienced a newfound connection to the land because I come from a city and you don’t get that sort of relationship.”
In the summer of 2018, she spent three weeks in Jerusalem, taking full advantage of summer research funds provided to LSSP scholars like Liang. She studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how solidarity played out in communities affected by the wall separating two neighbors.
When it comes to service, her philosophy is to “come as an outsider, as someone willing to learn,” she says.“It’s about me learning what they need and not imposing things from the outside.”
She credits classes on U.S. Latino communities and Latin America with expanding her notion of what Latinx identities mean in different places. For example, the experience of Mexican-Americans In Los Angeles is much different than that of the Caribbean diasporas in her hometown of Miami. But the preservation of cultural heritage remains an important component to the American identities of these dissimilar communities.
Kelly is also thankful for the cultural programming ILS provides: One of her fondest memories is meeting star of the stage and screen Rita Moreno — the first American woman and only Latina to win a Peabody, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and a Tony (PEGOT) — when she came to Notre Dame as part of ILS’s Transformative Latino Leadership Lecture Series. Scholars like Liang get special access to conversations with transformative Latino leaders like Moreno, Dolores Huerta, Associate Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, who have visited Notre Dame to share their stories of triumph, challenge, faith, and progress in the past years.
Since arriving for merit scholar weekend in 2017, Liang has felt welcome at the Institute for Latino Studies; shortly thereafter, she chose Notre Dame. As she looks toward senior year and beyond, Liang’s future appears bright as she stands ready for the challenges to come, armed with a deeper understanding of Latino communities, what it takes to be a truly transformative leader, and most importantly, her identity and place in the world.