Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, 149 West Hastings Street

Saying Goodbye to Rachel Wong

July 03, 2020
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The beginning of July 2020 marks the end of Rachel Wong’s time in our Office. Rachel began as a Communication co-op student 13 months ago and eventually became a permanent employee. Now she is moving on to SFU Surrey where she will continue working in communications and engagement. Before she moves to her new position, our Community Engagement Coordinator Fiorella Pinillos sat down with Rachel and talked about her time as a student, her time in the office and her future plans.

From SFU Student to Communications Specialist

Fiorella: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Rachel: I just graduated from SFU with a degree in Communication and International Studies. My research interest has always been in the areas of public space and the manifestation of how public space can communicate power and privilege. So, it is Communication but also a little bit of Geography and Urban Studies.

I have a particular interest in Vancouver’s Chinatown, given my own ethnic heritage. I did my honours thesis on how Chinese seniors relate to the place of Chinatown through the lens of ethnic food.

Outside of that, I’ve been working with SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement for just over a year now. I started as a co-op student and then I was privileged to turn it into a full time permanent position. And now, I am moving on to work and do communications and community engagement work at SFU Surrey. I live in Surrey, so it seems like a natural fit for me to go back to my community and work in the community that I live in. I also host a Catholic woman’s podcast called The Feminine Genius Podcast.

Rachel Wong in her grad gown at her at-home graduation ceremony.

Fiorella: Your research sounds really interesting, can you tell us more about your thesis?

Rachel: I was interested in understanding the ways in which Chinese seniors related to the place of Chinatown and how they understood that place. I was curious to know how with the changing food scape, the landscape of restaurants and cafes as more culturally significant restaurants and grocery stores were forced out and new things like cafes, pizza shops came in, and how does that impact the ways in which Chinese seniors see and relate to the place of Chinatown. 

What I found was the fact that a lot of the participants said things like they saw Chinatown diminishing in quality and just become a place that they ultimately don’t recognize. Many Chinese seniors still live there out of necessity, but for those Chinese folks who have moved away but still frequent the area on a regular basis, what they’ve noticed is that they have less places to meet up with their friends… But given that it is a racialized community, their understanding of Chinatown as a haven or a cultural community for them to really be themselves, enjoy entertainment or enjoy food that they’re familiar with has slowly disappeared.

There’s a whole discussion around is it really worth it to save a place such as this, and what is the value in preserving that type of heritage? I guess the conclusion that I came to is that, as much as we talk about preserving heritage by way of buildings and infrastructure and architecture, there’s also this level of what UNESCO calls intangible heritage.

So whether it’s education, cultural performances, dance, song, and food anything that isn’t totally tangible heritage in the way that we understand it, how can we maybe strike a balance in terms of providing spaces where that intangible heritage can still be felt and lived out? 

Rachel with one of the participants of her honours research study.

Fiorella: How was the move from being a co-op student to a continuing position?

Rachel: I don’t know if I totally recommend doing an independent research project and working at the same time, but having said that, everybody at the Office has been so supportive of me getting to school and me trying to meet deadlines and I’m really grateful for that. In many ways, I would say that the transition was made simple and easy because of that.

Certainly, I was really missing Melissa, my predecessor, when she had left and then I’d taken on her position. But because we have such a tight knit team, it made the transition really easy. A lot of the work stayed the same, the only difference was really the title. In fact, the title provided a lot more confidence to go out and do the work, be more confident in how I was presenting myself and I didn’t have to necessarily hide behind, “Oh, I’m a co-op student, therefore, I don’t know everything.” 

Even to this day, I still don’t know everything, but have a little more confidence moving forward, I can do this, I can talk to the higher ups at SFU – like for example I have talked to Andrew Petter.

Rachel Wong at the 312 Main Street SFU building opening.

Learning through Community Engagement

Fiorella: So when did you become interested in community engagement?

Rachel: I started doing community engagement with the Surrey campus in my first year. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the different internal departments at SFU, but also the different community partners that SFU Surrey is affiliated with and works very closely with.

I feel like it’s always been like part of my times as an SFU student. In my previous experience in community engagement out of Surrey I had some hand in working with the SFU Surrey partnership with Fusion Festival and the annual Terry Fox Run, the United Way of the Lower Mainland campaign and a couple of different projects. I was part of a pilot project to help to bring physical education as well as educational literacy to inner city schools.

I would say that being in the community and helping out different people in different ways has always been something that I’ve really enjoyed. And I’m thankful that this is carried out through this job and then on to the next position as well.

Rachel Wong volunteering at the 2016 Fusion Fest, pictured in the bottom right.

Fiorella: Can you tell us something that you learned at this job?

Rachel: I feel the biggest thing that it comes back to, for me is always always checking privilege and power. As many people know, it’s like the Woodward’s campus itself has been viewed in such a precarious way given its location and the proximity to the Downtown Eastside and the neighborhood that we work in. It’s certainly a cross section of very different and dynamic communities.

So I think the biggest takeaway for me has always been to just really check my privilege and my power and try as much as possible to see things from the other person’s point of view. And to really stop and try and understand.  

Building Community Connections

Fiorella: While working in your own research you brought to the office the partnership with Yarrow. Tell us about your connection with Yarrow?

Rachel: Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice was a group that I was put in contact with when I was doing my own research, because I was in need of some participants for my research, who were seniors familiar with or who frequented the Chinatown community or maybe even lived there. Later, we got to partner with them on an event, and that was really special. I was sad that I wasn’t able to be there in person, but I was really grateful to be part of the planning process and acting as a bridge between the office and Yarrow to try and make this partnership possible.

Speak My Language event with Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice.

Fiorella: Finally, how do you feel about switching jobs in the middle of COVID-19? 

Rachel: First and foremost, like I’m very grateful that this opportunity even came up and of course, the fact that I have to switch teams and leave a team that I’ve come to know and get to know over the past year, that’s very saddening to me. And it’s not just our team, there’s the whole office, the people who are at SFU Woodward’s, and SFU Vancouver. I’m literally migrating cities in a way. There’s a whole community that I have to say goodbye to, which is very challenging and very sad, given the fact that we can’t say goodbye in person.

But at the same time, I’m also very grateful just because I know that my situation is quite unique. In fact, a lot of people are finding it difficult to find work or even losing their jobs, so it’s not lost on me that my situation is unique and it’s one that I’m really grateful for that I’ve been afforded this opportunity to find a new position in this time. And at the same time, I’m also grateful that, I have a lot of colleagues that I know on a personal level on campus. So I hope that that will make it easier. 

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