CA Curious

Building Bridges: How One Conference Creates Community at CA and Beyond

March 16, 2023

“You can make what you’re passionate about become a reality […] You can always have a role!”

These rousing words, uttered by keynote speaker Dr. Ya Liu, could not have been truer to the Building Bridges Across Communities conference story. The first of its kind in Cary Academy history, the conference brought together Asian-identifying students and faculty from across multiple Triangle schools in a day of fellowship, fun, and future-oriented enthusiasm. 

It all began one year ago after Leya Tseng Jones, Isa Oon, and I returned from the Asian Educators Alliance (AsEA)conference in California. Invigorated and inspired by the work of Asian diaspora educators from across the country, we immediately began plans to bring a similar necessary experience to our community through connections at other local schools. As Leya explained,  “Collaborating and building strong working partnerships with our counterparts at Durham Academy and Ravenscroft was so rewarding; witnessing the initiative, organization, and collaboration of our student leaders with their counterparts was truly inspiring. Each group took the lead on one component of our morning and thoughtfully managed every detail. I couldn’t be more impressed with what they accomplished together over just a few Zoom meetings of face-to-face time.” 

From the beginning, it was clear to this union, known as the Asian American Alliance, that the conference should not only be student-focused, but student-led. Three student leaders and members of the Upper School Asian American Pacific Islander Affinity Group, senior EJ Jo, junior Eric Xie, and junior Angela Zhang, each took a large role in organizing with other student leaders as well as fellow affinity group students. When asked about how close the first vision was to the final result, the answers were positive. 

“Initially, we wanted to invite a keynote and have a few sessions for discussion,” Angela said. “The result was just that; it was very similar to what we originally thought.” Eric added, “Our turnout was great, especially on such short notice, and every participant definitely seemed to want to be there and actively participated in the group activities and asked insightful questions to our keynote speaker, Dr. Liu. Looking back, there’s very little I would change, if anything at all.”

On Wednesday, March 8, Cary Academy students were joined by members of Durham Academy, Ravenscroft, St. Mary’s School, and the Montessori School of Raleigh. First on the agenda was the keynote address by Dr. Ya Liu, highlighting the connection between the personal and the political.

“I didn’t intend to be a leader,” Dr. Liu told the audience after outlining her impressive experience in community organizing. “It’s precisely because of the work I did. You may think, ‘I’m just a middle schooler, I’m just a high schooler, what can I do?’ […] A lot of these experiences will become part of who you are.” Dr. Liu went on to encourage students to seek out resources from beyond their schools and to “find the friends who will support you. Find the teachers who will support you.” 

Following the speaker, all participants were separated into randomized groups to experience a spectrum activity in which members were asked to discuss the intersections of their identity and what effects this had on their relationship with themselves and others. Students then attended one of several student-only workshops while adults exchanged encouragement and visions for the future in a different affinity group. 

“In both discussion sessions, I heard from many students about their experiences with their ethnicity and race,” Angela recalled of the student portion. “Even though I had never met these students before, it seemed that we had experienced the variation of a common struggle: our adolescent urge to be ‘white.’ So it surprised me how isolated everyone felt compared to how everyone was going through the same thing. Therefore, my biggest takeaway is that we were and are never alone.”

On the adult side, Leya observed that “There are so few Asian-identifying faculty/staff in our schools. We – the adults – need to find time to gather, even if virtually, to connect and support each other. Our brief time together was affirming and empowering.” 

When I looked around the Discovery Studio at the fellowship lunch, it was clear that every person present felt fulfilled and connected. In a world where being Asian American can often lead to so much stress and pressure from many sources, the beauty of Asian diasporic joy becomes not only a delight but a necessity. Looking forward, I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we all intend to keep building this reality we’re so passionate about.

Written by Lauren Bullock, Language Arts and World Cultures Teacher

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April 18, 2019

Members of the Community Engagement Class tend the community garden at Alliance Medical Ministry in Wake County.

How do students at a private school understand and respond to the critical needs in their community? One way a group of us tried to break out of our CA “bubble” was in an innovative class that began this year. 

In January 2018, Dr. McElreath offered the junior class the opportunity to create a new Community Engagement class at our school, and he said we could choose the topic we wanted to explore. Five of us met weekly until we eventually chose the broad but important theme of poverty and inequality in Wake County.  

During Discovery Term, we met with experts from academia, nonprofits, and governmental agencies to learn more about this issue. At the beginning of this school year, using the knowledge we amassed during DT and with 4 new classmates, we split up into 4 subtopics: inequalities in housing, criminal justice, healthcare, and education.  

Throughout the year, we continued researchingidentifying major problems and potential solutions to these pressing matters. By January, we presented some of our ideas for improving inequalities to students, parents, and some of the experts we had interviewed earlier. We still hope to speak with some decision-makers in government and corporate settings before we’re through! 

This last trimester, however, we have mostly shifted into advocacy and volunteer work. We’ve identified several organizations working hard to alleviate inequalities, and we’ve spent time learning from and supporting folks at Habitat of Wake County, the Alliance Medical Ministry, and a phenomenal preschool called Learning Together.  

Learning Together’s mission is to “meet the developmental, educational, and health needs of young children of all abilities.” Primarily serving lower socioeconomic individuals with a variety of learning differences, Learning Together bridges the gap between where students are and where they need to be, making their matriculation into Wake County Schools with their age-peers possible and successful. This past year, 27 of their 32 students who finished the pre-school were able to begin regular kindergartens in Wake County with their friends. This is an incredible place!  

LT’s work addresses successfully some of the essential inequities we have been studying in education and healthcare, and they do so with many children in families that are housing insecure. In ways that may seem less immediate, their work may even prevent their students from ever becoming involved in the criminal justice system.  

We’re so impressed by Learning Together that we have joined an effort to support the school’s Bridge Gala fundraiser on May 9. If we are successful, we will help Learning Together families maintain access to healthy food this summer. Without our help, LT may have to shut down from June to August, depriving children of their most consistent source of healthy meals 

By the way, you can help!  If this school’s mission and results impress you like they did us, we hope you will learn more and contribute to this effort 

And if you can, we hope you will join us for the Gala on May 9!  


Alisha, Grace, Izzy, Jaishree, Leksi, Madi, Mesha, Michael, Ryan, & Dr. McElreath  

The Community Engagement Class 

Written by Alisha, Grace, Izzy, Jaishree, Leksi, Madi, Mesha, Michael, Ryan, & Dr. McElreath

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Center for Community Engagement

August 30, 2018

As an educator and a historian, I am sometimes struck by how much of what I learn can also be described as what I re-learn. I think we all have learning experiences that are powerful partly because they recall for us important lessons we had, if not forgotten, at least allowed to recede for a time.

The need to re-focus and re-emphasize on what we used to know is very much in my mind as we power up CA’s new Center for Community Engagement. Although housed for now in the Upper School, the CCE is a cross-divisional effort that combines offices that support Service Learning, Experiential Learning, and Diversity & Inclusion work both on campus and in the wider community.

What is this Center? As the name implies, it will help to connect folks at CA, building ties among students and employees to engage in projects and relationships with each other. As importantly, the Center will provide myriad opportunities for students and faculty to build ties to the Triangle area, in lots of ways.

Here are some examples, drawn from just the start of the year:

  • Leo deSouza ‘18 dropped by to share some highlights from his summer internship with ScaleShark, a new local company that provides businesses from around the globe a chance to expand to the Triangle efficiently. ScaleShark’s CEO reached out to CA in the spring with the idea of hiring two CA interns for the summer, and Leo and Milen Patel ’19 spent the summer helping a start-up business grow.
  • Trish Yu, our Upper School Chinese teacher, approached the CCE for ideas about connecting with a Triangle company with expertise operating in China. She is developing a new trimester class for next year on communicating in the Chinese business world, and is piloting aspects of that course this year with her advanced students. We have a meeting scheduled with an executive from Lenovo (CA alum parent Dave Cree) next week to explore this possibility.
  • We have joined HQ Raleigh, a coworking community in downtown Raleigh, that has helped to incubate hundreds of new companies in the last few years. HQ Raleigh is itself a B-corporation that emphasizes the need for private companies to be good citizens and contributors to their communities, and we felt that their mission aligned well with CA’s own community values. We will build relationships through HQ with lots of potential hosts of CA Work Experience students and further develop internship and other opportunities there.
  • We have finalized plans for this year’s Sophomore Service Days (this week!) and the September 8th Grade Service Day, and are gearing up for lots of service in October: a Red Cross Blood Drive, Middle School Bagels for the Cure to support breast cancer research, and the annual Yam Jam of the Society of St. Andrew to combat hunger in our community.
  • We have begun conversations with outside organizations about expanding opportunities for students to do service with them as part of intentional, ongoing relationships. These include a school and a well-known community organization. We will announce more details as these plans come to fruition.
  • We have begun planning for this year’s Triangle Diversity Alliance Conference, which CA will host in the second trimester. TDA is our collaborative effort with four other local independent school in support of our ongoing, deep commitment to making our school and our community a welcoming and inclusive community for all our students and neighbors.

Now, this sort of work is not exactly new to CA We have been committed to service, diversity, and inclusion for over 20 years! But the new ingredient in the mix is a thoughtful commitment to connect these efforts to learning that is transformative and integrated.

Over the last several years, guided by our Strategic Plan’s focus on learning that is “relevant, personalized, and flexible,” we have been working to expand the ways CA students can do real-world learning. These have included a more robust set of offerings during our end-of-year Discovery Term and the opportunity for juniors to participate in the Work Experience Program, which 72 juniors took advantage of last year. The positive feedback from both the students and the numerous community partners for the WEP were part of what convinced us that the Center for Community Engagement’s time had come.

As we grow this Center, we will keep updating as we learn new lessons. Part of experiential learning best-practice is to build in proper time and attention for reflection and improvement, and that will be true for both the students and the adults working with them.

This year, for instance, we are offering our first for-credit course called Community Engagement (EXP-400), and the students in the course chose their focus for the year back in March and have helped design the course with me. They chose to focus on poverty and inequality in Raleigh, so we will have lots of ways to approach this complex and important topic throughout the year. In lots of ways, the course will serve as a melding of the three offices within the Center, since the students’ learning will be immersive and expeditionary; they will interact with and support an extremely diverse set of experts (think, everyone form city leaders to those served by a variety of public and private social welfare agencies), and to serve the whole community by—we hope—helping us identify some ways to ameliorate some of the disparities we come to understand better throughout the year.

We could not be more excited to launch the Center for Community Engagement, as we re-commit to learning that is deep, meaningful, and transformative both for us and for our community. We welcome your collaboration with us as we move forward together!

Written by MIchael McElreath, Experiential Learning Director

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