Carolyn Fan

Transforming Research Into Activism

Carolyn Fan arrives just before a meeting of NYU’s Asian Pacific American Medical Student Association, nearly tipping over from the weight of an armload of pizza. In her work with APAMSA, Fan has made it her primary goal to advocate for voices that are not usually heard. She emphasizes her uninhibited availability to members of the club, a message that resonates especially well this Monday, just six days removed from the election result.

“I think there’s a stereotype that Asian-Americans are sort of apathetic to political issues,” Fan said. “Even though I’ve seen so many students who are super active in the community, there are other people who are still searching for that space and haven’t found it yet.”

As the president of APAMSA and an active member of NYU Asian/Pacific/Americans Building Relationships to Inspire Diversity, Growth and Empowerment, Fan seeks to create that space for Asian-American students to share their experiences and critically engage with the world.

Fan’s gift for guiding conversation is innate in her leadership. “She’s amazing at recognizing people’s specific needs and working to accommodate,” Shivon Shah, a CAS senior and veteran BRIDGE member, said. “She’s just on the pulse at all times.”

Her activist bent didn’t come out of nowhere. While she always had some inclination towards social justice, most of it was limited to reblogging activist posts on Tumblr in high school. The issue of identity and justice “just wasn’t talked about” in the small town she lived in near Chicago, Illinois.

Fan credits Project Outreach, a service group on campus that she now helps to coordinate, for initially opening that door for her freshman year. Not only did Outreach help Fan see firsthand how service impacts a local community, but activities and lectures sponsored by the group also made abstract concepts like privilege and microaggressions concrete.

Her renewed interest in social justice initiatives fed into her academics. A frustrating sophomore year threatened to derail her studies in sociology and pre-med, but eventually led Fan to pursue her passion in public health after she interned at NYU’s Socioeconomic Evaluation of Dietary Decisions Program lab, colloquially known as the SeedProgram. Fan realized that research was the key to combating health disparities for marginalized groups.

Fan now double majors in global public health and sociology in the College of Global Public Health with a minor in history. As a co-president of the college, she is working to build a community for undergraduates in CGPH.

The amalgamation of research and community has played an important role in how Fan molds her activism; it is something that she has been interested in since a young age. She joked that her sixth grade science fair project — a study on how music affects study habits — kickstarted her interest in research, “but that was just an excuse for me to make my friends to listen to the music that I liked.” In college, she focuses her studies on Asian-American health research in order to tackle the root causes of oppression in relation to health.

Fan was also tapped by professors to take an active role as a founding member of the NYU Tobacco Lab. Because of her experience working in the SeedProgram lab, a professor recommended that she help set up the Tobacco Lab and incorporate undergrad students into its disparate projects.

It’s hard to get everyone on the same page, CGPH senior and Tobacco Lab researcher Maggie Ruzich said, since the common thread between the Lab’s projects are just that they are tangentially related to tobacco. However, Fan still manages to pull it off.

“She’s a phenomenal leader, and I think that ability comes from always being able to put herself in another person’s shoes,” Ruzich said. “That way she is always able to manage a group, no matter who’s in it, in order to get things done.”

Though she juggles responsibility on all ends of the spectrum, Fan never loses the fire that drives each individual endeavor.

“She’s very humble about it all,” Ruzich said. “You almost have to dig in to realize how much she’s doing because she won’t be the first one to tell you.”

Fan hopes to continue fighting for Asian-American rights and healthcare even after she graduates. Her experiences have taught her to think critically not just about her own position in this world, but also how to aid others in elevating theirs.

“NYU made me realize that I had all this internalized oppression, thinking about myself and my family,” Fan said. “A lot of things that I face and that my friends and family face aren’t just individual problems, they’re system-wide, societal issues.”

Read the rest of Influential 2016 here

Email Emily Fong at [email protected]