Ashley Yong stands outside in front of a paned window reflecting a blurred image of tree foliage and a campus building.
Ashley Yong. Photo by Shane Epping

Story by Erik Potter

No one saw the tears coming.

One evening when she was about 6, Ashley Yong was riding home with her family, staring at the suburban-Chicago cityscape from her back-seat window. They passed a Dunkin’ Donuts restaurant, lit brightly in the darkness, empty save for one employee standing behind the counter. Her mind immediately processed, in her 6-year-old way, that that person was alone because he had no family or friends to go home to. She thought he was forsaken. Immediately, she started sobbing.

That story has become part of the Yongs’ family lore. Variations of it have repeated throughout Yong’s life, though as she grew, she learned to take action on her feelings. A version of the story showed up her junior year of high school, in Darien, Illinois, when she donated 26 inches of her hair to make wigs for people who had lost their own hair to chemotherapy. It appeared again her senior year when she took the $250 she would have spent on prom and instead used it to make care packages for Chicago’s homeless — and then raised $6,300 online to do it again.

In a way, it also explains why, as a freshman in fall 2015, she wanted to leave Mizzou. It was a tumultuous time on campus. She had trouble understanding what was happening and couldn’t connect to her new surroundings. There were 35,000 students on campus, but she felt like that Dunkin’ Donuts employee.

One October day, sitting in her room in Mark Twain Hall, she hit a low point. She sat at her desk, pulled up her laptop and dialed her parents on Skype. She told them how she felt. Crying, she said she wanted to go to school somewhere else.

“My parents are very level-headed and strategic,” Yong says. They listened to their daughter, but they told her to stay — at least through the end of the school year. If she still wanted to leave after that, she could.

It was good advice.

The next month, Yong went to the Asian American Association’s Thanksgiving potluck in Memorial Union. Dozens of students gathered in Memorial Union’s Stotler Lounge to share food and play games to get to know each other. Yong felt a sense of warmth and acceptance from the students. She had found a home.

Ashley Yong holds a plate of food.
Amos Chen, Ashley and John Cruz work their way along the serving line during the MU Asian-American Association’s Thanksgiving dinner in Stotler Lounge.

That feeling gave her the confidence she needed to get involved on campus. One of the first things she did was apply to become a Summer Welcome Leader.

Looking back, the Thanksgiving potluck was a turning point for Yong, but it was becoming a Summer Welcome Leader that fixed her in her new direction.

The pivotal moment came when she walked in to her first Summer Welcome training session. Yong, still a freshman, looked around at the other recruits. She saw she was the only Asian American in the room. She realized she was in a position to help prevent someone, especially an Asian American, in the next class of students from going through what she had gone through. The knowledge filled her with a sense of responsibility. She moved past her tears and got to work.

Each evening during Summer Welcome, the student leaders put on a kind of talent show. Yong spoke each night, in a slam poetry–like format, about what it meant to her to be an Asian American. The topic was something she had thought a lot about since joining the Asian American Association. One day, an Asian American incoming freshman and her father pulled Yong aside. “They told me how moved they felt by the fact I had enough courage to be vulnerable and share my experiences in front of an auditorium of people,” Yong says.

She knew she was making a difference.

Yong didn’t stop there. She also became a residence hall adviser and joined the Outreach Student Recruitment team, which goes to college fairs across the country to recruit students.

“I’m meant to be here,” Yong now says.

Yong, a strategic communication major, plans to pursue a master’s degree in student affairs after graduation. She wants to help others find the same sense of belonging in their college experience as she has found in hers. “I truly believe that the most important thing in life is the relationships we build,” she says. “If I can build even small relationships — to make someone smile — that’s huge to me.”