Derek Suen – Past President of Northwestern’s Taiwanese American Students Club and ITASA National Director of Public Relations

Northwestern University, Evanston, IL

I’ve come to realize that how I was brought up was the sole product of my parents’ Taiwanese heritage and couldn’t appreciate more the opportunities and experiences that I have had that have shaped my life.

Who are you?

I am a Taiwanese American entering my junior year at Northwestern University, just trying to make the most out of the quoted “best years of my life,” through singing, dancing, skiing and snowboarding, and eating all the great food that I can get my hands on. I was born in Ohio and have moved around to various places across the United States, but mainly grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, where I lived for almost 12 years. I grew up with very few Asians, let alone Taiwanese, friends for most of my life, and have always appreciated the company of an extremely diverse community. However, the summer before my freshman year of college, I went back to Taiwan as part of the Assisting Individuals with Disabilities (teaching English to underprivileged children in Taiwan) program with hundreds of other Taiwanese Americans across the nation. That summer changed my entire perspective of my own heritage as well as the culture that surrounded me for two months. It was there that I found myself accompanied by other Taiwanese Americans for the first time, realizing how much we had in common and how similar our upbringing was, a theme that was never common among my other friends back home. It was in that summer that I was thrust into the busy streets of Taiwan left to explore the country that had only briefly passed through my life every couple of years as a child. Coming back, I realized how much I wanted to stay connected to my roots and how important it was to truly understand the depth of the history of the culture my family comes from. From then on, I looked for ways to get involved with the greater Taiwanese community wherever I was and have never regretted the decision to since.

Tell us about your organization / project, your role, and its impact?

The Taiwanese American Students Club (TASC) at Northwestern strives to promote Taiwanese culture through events and activities to the greater Northwestern community. Throughout the year we throw events, from “Taiwan Night Market” and “Karaoke Night” to our annual Chinese New Year Celebration show “Celebrasia,” to showcase aspects of Taiwanese culture that most Northwestern students simply have no idea about. We also bring in speakers during the winter and spring to perform or talk about their experiences as Taiwanese Americans in their fields. During my year as President, I focused on finding ways to encourage greater attendance at our events by students who typically would never find themselves talking about Taiwanese foods or listening to Taiwanese artists. I wanted to create a venue that was both fun and social without losing a real sense of culture. This upcoming year our group is striving to be more educational than it has been in the past and to really enlighten students about how important Taiwan is right now, not only to Taiwanese people, but to the world.

As the Public Relations director on ITASA National Board, my role is to increase the transparency of our resources and events, established to inspire the greater Taiwanese American community across the nation, through social media, such as Facebook and YouTube, and quarterly newsletters. My goal as director this year is to better connect not just local university groups to ITASA national, but to build connections between universities themselves across the states. Meeting and interacting with other Taiwanese Americans from other schools has always been an incredibly worthwhile and enjoyable experience for me and I want others to have the opportunity to do the same, especially through venues such as our regional conferences every year.

Where do you find your inspiration and motivation as a student leader?

My greatest motivation and inspiration comes from my friends, my peers, and those who I get to work with day-to-day on projects and events that are important to all of us. Just hanging out with friends and meeting new people are my favorite two things to do, so combine that with a passionate interest and you’ve got gold. It’s incredibly humbling to see people working so hard to succeed and being just as committed as you are in getting things accomplished (though admittedly, hardly ever is your entire team going to be this way). And also, knowing that the finished product will be worth it all is enough to get me by even the most stressful and discouraging moments of student leading. I strongly believe that you need to experience the worst to have the best. The more hard work and stress that you put into something, the higher the payload of happiness upon completion.

What is your vision for the organization / project and the role that it may play in the broader community?

In terms of our TASC at Northwestern, I would like to see there come a point where, due to the events we’ve put on on campus, fewer and fewer people ask “Why is there both a Chinese student Association and a Taiwanese one?” and “Oh, you’re Taiwanese? Isn’t that the same thing as Chinese?” These are of course common questions experienced by most Taiwanese Americans, but to see their usage decrease would be a huge achievement. I would also like our group to reach out and connect to other Taiwanese communities within Chicago and eventually to the greater Midwest region. There are so many groups within this one city that hardly ever interact with each other, and it’s honestly such a shame. The ITASA Midwest conference comes by once a year, but I would love to see the Midwestern Taiwanese community come together more often than that even for the purpose of just being able seeing each other.

I also want all Taiwanese Americans, starting with our own campus, to actually know and understand the history and current events of Taiwan, things that a surprisingly few number of students actually know about.

Why are you proud to be of Taiwanese heritage?

As a 2nd generation Taiwanese American, I have to say that for most of my life, being Taiwanese never seemed that special to me. However, in recent years I’ve come to realize that how I was brought up was the sole product of my parents’ Taiwanese heritage and couldn’t appreciate more the opportunities and experiences that I have had that have shaped my life. Beyond the scope of my personal life, it’s still astounding to see how such a tiny country (dwarfed by the giant Lake Michigan next to my school) has overcome so many obstacles to become the powerhouse of a country that it is now. While there lies an obvious amount of antagonism confronting the country now, it’s reassuring to know of the amount of strength within the people that have come from Taiwan that will continue to fight for its cause. Also, there is no question of doubt in my mind that Taiwanese food is the best in the world and I would never prefer to eat anything else.

What does the future of Taiwanese America look like to you?

I would love to see Taiwanese Americans finding success in any field they wish to pursue, from politics and business to mainstream media. I hope for Taiwanese Americans to be aware of their heritage and when confronted with the question “Why is Taiwan important?” to have a lot of their own words to say. And in the end, I want Taiwanese Americans to be successful because of who they are and the successes they achieve, for it not to be surprising to see Taiwanese Americans in mainstream media, and for it to no longer be worth noting that they are “Taiwanese Americans who succeeded,” but simply people who have done great things.

Any additional information you would like to share?

TASC at Northwestern:


Also, I REALLY like Taiwanese popcorn chicken. Almost to the point of addiction.