“It’s about Crafting Your Own Journey” | Alumni Award for Excellence in Mentoring: Dawn Cheung

“I like talking to people, and helping others has always just been a part of who I am,” says Dawn Cheung (B.A., 2013), reflecting on her passion for mentorship. Currently, Cheung is a pre-professional career coach at the UW Career and Internship Center, where she works with pre-law and pre-health students to identify their educational, professional, and personal goals. In addition to her inherent proclivity for helping others, Cheung’s Chinese-American identity, and the mentorship she found lacking while developing her own career path, have further fueled her drive.

“My parents are immigrants and I was born here. But I consider myself 1.5th generation, not second generation, even though it’s the correct term to define me,” Cheung explains. “Second generation means someone who is fully integrated into society. I don’t feel fully-second, but I’m not first either. My parents worked around the clock, so I was practically raised by my grandmother. My first language is Chinese, and I was an ESL (English as a Secondary Language) student in elementary school.” This created a challenging situation when Cheung started college. “My parents and grandmother were fully integrated into Chinese culture. I didn’t have anyone to help me navigate college, even though I’m not first generation. I didn’t know who to turn to. An adviser? A career coach?”

Cheung’s 1.5th generation immigrant identity implied certain cultural expectations, and to meet them, she initially had her eyes set on entering business school. “My parents wanted me to do something of value. Traditionally, those career paths are: lawyer, doctor, engineer… but I wasn’t good at math and science. What’s the next best thing I could do to make my parents proud? Make a good amount of money, and have status and prestige? At the time, the blanket for all that was business school.”

While Cheung received functional advice on which classes to take to pursue business school, “nobody asked those deeper questions about family and other issues, [questions] looking at me holistically as a person. I really wish I had people in my life who asked me ‘why… why is this something you want to do?’ Business classes were hard; my grades were horrible; I didn’t really get it, and I wasn’t enjoying it.”

The turning point for Cheung came during sophomore year. It was during this time that she first worked for the UW Dream Project.

The UW Dream Project’s focus is supporting middle and high school students in the greater Puget Sound area with college access and post-secondary planning through near peer mentorship. “I enrolled for the Dream Project because I’d heard so much about it. I liked mentorship and it had always been a part of me,” she says with a smile. “In my freshman year, I took an English class that had a service-learning component. It was tutoring second and third graders at the Chinese Information and Service Center. I enjoyed working with young students.”

Cheung’s eyes sparkle as she talks about the Dream Project. “It was my first experience learning how to build a relationship with someone,” she shares. “My first assignment was with the Foster High School in Tukwila. At the time, it was the most diverse high school district in the nation—with a large immigrant and refugee population. Whenever we met as a group, it was a beautiful scene of all these different people together. It was great seeing that diversity and being with those high school students, people with identities similar to mine.” The joy of helping young students also motivated Cheung to minor in Education, Learning, and Societies (ELS).

Toward the end of Cheung’s sophomore year, she got rejected from business school. “The day that I got rejected from business school was the same day that I received my acceptance to go study abroad in Hong Kong!” exclaims Cheung. “I applied for the Communications major while I was studying abroad, and got in. Studying abroad helped me to get to know myself better. I asked myself, ‘why should I let my major define me? Why not make the most of it and see what happens?’ So when I came back for senior year, it was with this fresh new outlook on what I can do with my time left here. When I finally started taking classes I love, and doing the work that I love, and having conversations that were of interest to me, everything changed. My transcript will tell that story.”

Cheung recalls a class that particularly impacted her. “A Communications class called ‘Communication, Difference, and Power’ taught by Dr. Ralina Joseph changed my life. It was my window to connecting the different pieces of my life together. As a teenager, I wasn’t exposed to ask questions like, ‘What is diversity? What is privilege? What is power?’ I never thought of how these words impacted me, and this was the class that gave a name [and voice] to the experiences I’d had growing up,” she elaborates. “Why did I always feel so inferior to my white classmates? Why did I always feel like I had to be the smart one in the room? This class was a gateway to me understanding all these things, and then it connected to education: ‘How does this impact the education gap? Why is it so important for me to mentor these high school students who are facing the same struggles as I am?’ I think that was really the birth of why I like doing the work I do today.”

After graduation, even while her instincts were nudging her to work at AmeriCorps, a looming student debt enticed Cheung to take a well-paid job selling luxury handbags. However, after one very successful sales day, she remembers “having this moment where I thought all the handbags I sold today could have paid off my student loans. It was this moment of ‘what am I doing?’ I wasn’t doing anything that was helping people. It wasn’t fulfilling. There was no purpose besides selling handbags to really privileged people. I realized I couldn’t do it anymore.

Through AmeriCorps, Cheung then worked at a nonprofit called Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) for two years, where she learned new communication lessons. “During the first year, my job was to teach job readiness to immigrant refugee youth, specifically Chinese youth. Part of that was also teaching workshops to their parents, helping them understand the U.S. schooling system. The class for parents was in Chinese and Cantonese. It was hard,” she admits. “Once I had to get the parents to fill out some city-mandated worksheets. There were three moms who said, ‘we don’t know how to write.’ I reassured them that they didn’t have to write in English. Unfortunately, I had made the assumption that they could read and write in Chinese, but they couldn’t. That was a really eye-opening moment in terms of communicating with different populations, and learning how to not make any assumptions, and [strive instead to] accommodate all levels, without making anyone feel ashamed that they can’t read or write. I was learning all these new things about a community I’d grown up in.”

As Cheung began to understand people in a more rounded way, she decided to pursue a master’s degree in social work. “Social work was at the intersection of my major and minor; it helped me bring in that wholeness piece. You really start understanding a person for all their intersectionalities.”

Her advanced degree has since helped her empathize with different perspectives, and shape her philosophy as a pre-professional career coach. “Social work really hit home for me; the philosophy of meeting people where they’re at. I take that approach while working with students, or anyone really. Professionally right now, with pre-health and pre-law students, if a student says, ‘I’m ready to apply for law school,’ I am here to support them and help them with applications, and guide them every step of the way. But I am definitely going to try to give them some data points and resources to help evaluate if they’re really ready or not,” she explains. “I say, ‘Let’s have a conversation to really determine if this is the best time for you to apply. I hear you, and… maybe this is something of equal value we can consider together.’ The worst thing I can do is make a student not feel heard. If I approached it by saying, ‘I don’t think you’re ready, and here’s why based on my professional experience,’ that’s not meeting them where they’re at. I want to look at the different factors at play in a student’s life, which are going to help [them] make the decision about the next step.”

Cheung believes it is critical for communicators to “listen deeply, and listen without judgment. Deep listening is truly giving space. As social workers, we hold space for the client to speak without judgment. Sometimes, people just want to be heard. To me, it means letting that person truly talk, [with me] not saying anything but just showing them that I’m intentionally listening. It’s easier said than done, because as humans, we tend to listen [in order to] to problem solve.”

Cheung’s interest in reaching out to students is not limited to her day job. This year, she presented at the UW Diversity Leadership Conference, which is a half-day conference designed for UW students to develop their leadership skills through a series of workshops and sessions. “I presented with a colleague. Our topic was ‘Reframing Fear: Embracing Discomfort to Become a Stronger Leader,’” she shares with excitement. “We talked about reframing fear to see a situation in a different light. I talked about my experience of how one door closing (business school) was the universe telling me there was something better out there for me. Students came up and said that they resonated with my experience, and many students made appointments [afterwards] to just come talk to me about their personal struggles.”

In 2015, Cheung was part of the Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce Young Leaders Program. She won a scholarship pageant, and “was crowned Miss Chinese Seattle. Then, they asked me to come back as a mentor for that program. A lot of the students are actually international students from [the] UW. This is a great mentorship opportunity for me. It’s outside of my regular role, but still with students that come to this university, and are from the community. It’s a win-win for me because I can show my face to more international students, so they know I’m a resource for them on campus. I try hard to make myself seen and known to underrepresented students, because I want them to know there is someone here from a similar background who can make them feel heard and seen.”

Cheung believes that “the least we can do is be consciously aware of where we can insert ourselves and advocate for students.” When asked what she wants students to take away from her mentorship, she says with a reassuring smile, “I want them to know that I’m here for them. When I was an undergraduate student, I didn’t have that person who said ‘please just come see me, whenever you want to talk to me.’ I want to be that person. I also want students to know: it really is about crafting your own journey; career paths are not linear. Don’t let your major define you. Instead of looking at a major as overwhelming, look at it as an opportunity, and you can really find who you are with it.”