The Daily Princetonian sat down with Jin Yun Chow ’17, who was recently named valedictorian for the Class of 2017, to discuss her academic and extracurricular interests. A comparative literature major from Hong Kong, Chow will deliver the valedictory address at the University’s Commencement ceremony on Tuesday, June 6.
The Daily Princetonian: How did you react when you heard the news?
Jin Yun Chow: When I first found out, I was only allowed to tell my parents, so I called them up at 1 a.m. They didn’t know what being valedictorian really was, so I had to explain to them while they were very sleepy. I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone until yesterday. I still feel very overwhelmed, and I feel like there are so many deserving people. At the end of the day…I just feel like I’m very lucky to have been given this honor and that it could have been given to any of the super high-achieving people in my year. And now I’m really trying to think about what I could possibly say to this group of super diverse, talented people from all over the world.
DP: Princeton is a very challenging place. What’s been your approach to academics?
JYC: I came from a super tiny school; my graduating class was like 30 kids. So getting in was a big surprise already. When I got in, I told myself, “I’m going to be a small fish in a big pond.” I discarded all the expectations I had in school, which really allowed me to experiment and meet completely new people. Just being in a new environment, I was able to put down all my history and expectations of myself and try something new. In high school I struggled a lot with stressing out about maintaining high achievements. But for some reason I was able to make that mental shift when I came here to try completely new things. It helped being so far away from home and not having my parents around. I also had a really weird health episode my freshman year. The second week of freshman year, my lung collapsed. It was terrifying. So I have this weird lung condition where my lung will randomly collapse. When that happened freshman year, that was the third time, so I knew how to handle it. But it wasn’t the best timing. I was in the hospital for a week, missed a week of classes, almost had to take a year off. That was very disruptive, but it made me a much stronger person. I still remember doing Latin homework in the hospital with my left hand because my right lung had collapsed, so I couldn’t really move [my right arm].
DP: What were some of the new things that you tried?
JYC: I taught in a prison for the first time. Before that, I had never even set foot inside a prison before. I started that freshman spring with the Petey Greene program. Sophomore year I started planning my own class with some of my friends. That’s definitely been the newest thing. It’s something that I want to continue in graduate school, too.
DP: Did you start PREP (a workforce reentry education program for prisoners) yourself?
JYC: Yes, I started PREP with some of my friends. It stands for Princeton Reentry Employment Preparation. It’s a vocational training program. Next year will be the first year where none of the founders will be there. We teach resume writing, interview skills, job applications for Panera or Wawa or different kinds of sales, and also college essays for those who want to go back to school.
DP: You knew English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and some French coming in. And you picked up Latin, German, and Old Irish in Princeton. Did you know that you were interested in languages and comparative literature coming in?
JYC: I came in thinking that maybe I would try out classics, so that’s why I started Latin. I loved it but I realized that I liked spoken languages more and liked immersing myself in a particular culture that’s still around. I discovered the comp lit department sophomore year, and was like, wow! I didn’t want to be in any particular national literature, so comp lit seemed like the best way. With German, I heard of how well it’s taught here, and I’m very drawn to language pedagogy as well. It was totally worth it; I spent two summers in Germany. But in terms of why I spoke French and Chinese for my thesis work; they’re my best languages and I could do more translations with them. I’m interested in looking at the relationship between China and the west. In this case, it’s Europe, France in particular. I feel like there‘s been a lot of fetishization of China across the centuries. There's not a lot of mutual understanding on cultural or political levels even up until today, so I wanted to look at cultural interactions between these two countries. My thesis looked at the 19th century in particular. It was on a French woman’s translations of classical Chinese poems. it was one of the first introductions of classical Chinese poetry from the seventh to eighth century — so really old — to French in the 1800s. I was looking at how this particular anthology of poems informed European perceptions of China.
DP: Do you feel like being named valedictorian has meaning beyond the individual? Did you feel like you were a representative in any way?
JYC: I do feel particularly happy that I’m a woman of color, I suppose, and particularly happy that I’m an international student. Because I think in Princeton, it's much harder for people who don’t speak English at home to feel at home and to interact at the same level academically. I’m very lucky in that I happened to adapt to the English language medium quickly, but I know that it’s a tough challenge for a lot of international students. And also I guess in general you don’t see that many Asians in the humanities. I hope that I ... can encourage people to be interested in the humanities and break away from both gender and racial stereotypes of majors.
DP: What are you doing after graduation?
JYC: I’m going to Stanford for a P.h.D. in comparative literature. I want to delve more into the digital humanities. Something that I’m really passionate about is how to make the humanities less lofty and obscure to people. Digital humanities visualizes things in a way that is accessible to people who might not be super into books. Also, bringing together the computer science and humanities, which is also one reason why I chose Stanford, because it’s so strong in both. Being in a place where it’s so clearly tech- and science-heavy and seeing how the humanities sort of fight back and adapt to make themselves relevant is something I’m interested in learning more about.