Fighting for honesty: Emma Shainwald ’20 seeks to preserve the truth as OA, activist and Fellowship recipient

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COURTESY PHOTO / EMMA SHAINWALD Shainwald '20 hopes to start honest conversation through work as OA, activism.

While sauteed eggs and belonging don’t ordinarily go hand in hand, Emma Shainwald ’20 first found community at the College of William and Mary waiting in line for an omelette after an Asian American Student Initiative meeting. After four years of pursuing activism in Williamsburg, guiding new students as a three-time Orientation Aide, and working in a Shanghai art museum, Shainwald credits that fateful omelette encounter during her freshman year as a monumental step towards finding her home on campus.

“I was standing in line for an omelette and it was after our second meeting … and this senior girl comes up to me and she started talking to me, and I was like … ‘a senior wants to talk to me,’” Shainwald said.

“I was standing in line for an omelette and it was after our second meeting … and this senior girl comes up to me and she started talking to me, and I was like … ‘a senior wants to talk to me,’” Shainwald said.

Becoming close with upperclassmen during her first year was instrumental in developing Shainwald’s sense of belonging at the College. As a senior, she strives to foster that sense of belonging in other students through her various extracurricular and academic engagements. 

As an active member of AASI, Shainwald recalled how formative the organization’s circle discussions about Asian-American identity were when she was a freshman, and noted how influential the initiative was in cultivating her own community on campus. 

Shainwald said that last year, a large amount of students in the class of 2019 joined AASI during their final semester on campus only to discover how much they enjoyed the organization mere months before graduating. In finding community on campus, Shainwald took advantage of clubs, organizations and groups — and urges others to do the same before it’s too late.

“They always come, and they’re like, ‘I wish I had joined this organization my freshman year,’ and I was like … ‘you could have,’” Shainwald said.

“They always come, and they’re like, ‘I wish I had joined this organization my freshman year,’ and I was like … ‘you could have,’” Shainwald said.

During Shainwald’s time at the College, AASI has broadened its scope and membership, and now focuses on both discussion and political advocacy. Alongside other AASI members, Shainwald has participated in letter-writing campaigns and phone banks on behalf of several political themes, including opposition to the Trump administration’s deportations of Southeast Asians.

Shainwald’s engagement on campus extends beyond her political activism. A veteran OA with three orientation periods spent working in the Green and Gold Village and Monroe Hall, she has embraced three separate cohorts of students as they begin their college careers. Despite the job’s intense emotional and physical demands, Shainwald is proud to play a role in acclimating new students to the College, particularly when handling sensitive conversations surrounding sexual assault and diversity.

“We always have to prepare for that because you never know how your hall will react to those kinds of things,” Shainwald said. “There have been a few times where it’s difficult, but sometimes, it’s also really good.”

While orientation is designed to maximize student enthusiasm and help students feel comfortable in Williamsburg, Shainwald emphasizes to freshmen that college isn’t always easy. She says that acknowledging potential hazards along the winding transition to college is an effective way of mitigating the sugarcoating occasionally associated with the five-day program, and that having an earnest dialogue about potentially difficult experiences on campus is ultimately beneficial. 

“That’s one of the things we talk about … you always have to push that there are resources and people that are going to be there for you, and be really encouraging, but also … to be honest … these are things you may experience on campus and you want to do that in a way that’s not terrifying to freshmen,” Shainwald said.

In tackling obstacles in college, Shainwald tells her constituents that the best thing to do is to find a community like she was fortunate enough to have as a freshman, since having a strong support system is an integral aspect of a happy, healthy life on campus.

“I think finding a community is a really big one,” Shainwald said.

Last summer, Shainwald’s passion for community carried her thousands of miles away from Williamsburg to Shanghai, where she worked in an English language school and then in an art museum for six weeks. Shainwald was one of the inaugural recipients of the College’s Freeman Fellowship award, which grants stipends to around 20 students pursuing summer internships in East Asia. 

While teaching English was rewarding, Shainwald ultimately enjoyed working at the art museum significantly more because there was less pressure to exclusively speak English — and avoid speaking Mandarin — which she felt working at the language school. 

“The school was teaching English, so we could only speak in English, and I was like … ‘this isn’t what I wanted,’” Shainwald said.

Unlike art museums in the United States that feature countless gallery rooms, the art museum in Shanghai was considerably smaller and more intimate with just two exhibition rooms. During Shainwald’s time there, the primary exhibit featured a diverse array of work, including pieces by an African-American artist from the Bronx, New York. However, what Shainwald found even more exciting than the artwork was the ability to form friendships with her new co-workers and develop her Mandarin skills.

“I forced my co-workers to speak Mandarin with me … I can’t speak Chinese well, but please only speak to me in Chinese,” Shainwald said.

Buoyed by influential experiences in Shanghai, Williamsburg and beyond, Shainwald is beginning her final year at the College with an open mind. While attending law school, pursuing paralegal work, and working for a nonprofit are all on her radar, her main priority is to continue focusing on the issues she’s most passionate about, regardless of which professional environment she ends up in.

“I’m really interested in immigration and APIA issues… but who knows,” Shainwald said.