Mei-Chen Pan speaks about how her interdisciplinary interests in Museum Studies and translation brought her to Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. Here you will read about her experience as an international student, graduate student parent, her work as a freelance translator, and her job as an academic success coach at the University of San Francisco.

Mei-Chen studied English and Japanese in Foreign Languages and Cultures department at the National Taiwan University. Having always wished to study abroad, she then pursued a master’s degree in Cultural Studies at the University of Amsterdam. There, Mei-Chen encountered Mieke Bal’s writings on museums as narratives, which finally led to her interest in Museum Studies and Comparative Literature. Following a general Dutch trend to apply to programs in the US, Mei-Chen decided to pursue her interdisciplinary interests and languages at the University of Michigan, which guaranteed her financial support. Michigan caught her eye especially because of how Complit’s faculty all have double appointments, making for a diverse department with broad expertise.

During her first year in the program, not knowing how the system of higher education worked in the United States often felt overwhelming and intimidating for Mei-Chen. Besides the challenging coursework, teaching academic writing in English to predominantly US students without having any prior college experience in the country felt daunting. As an international student, she struggled with breaking the ice with her students and faced racism because of her accent. In contrast, Complit knew to acknowledge and make use of Mei-Chen’s different skill set as an international student, offering her a TA position and allowing her to postpone teaching first-year writing until her third year. This experience gave Mei-Chen the confidence she needed to introduce her own agenda and style when teaching as a primary instructor later on. Surrounded and supported by fellow international students with a different language and area interests, Mei-Chen expresses that she did not feel as conscious of her “foreign-ness” in Comparative Literature as she had in other departments. Another aspect she found valuable in the program was the faculty’s willingness to involve graduate students in their meetings.

Writing her dissertation was not smooth sailing for Mei-Chen. Up until her topics paper, in the end of year 4,  she faced lack of support from her initial mentor, as well as challenges with her topic and writing. On the one hand, this led to her being put on probation by her committee, which was naturally very stressful. On the other hand, Mei-Chen used this as a chance to rethink her entire dissertation project and committee, including choosing a new mentor. She decided to turn back to what she was passionate about in the first place: Museum Studies. Her dissertation project changed drastically from her early milestones and ended up being about the National Museum of Taiwan Literature. Pursuing the graduate certificate in Museum Studies also helped her learn both the theoretical side and the practical side of running a museum, including education programs. Another “rewarding challenge” that Mei-Chen faced was becoming a parent during the Ph.D. Giving birth in a foreign country, far away from any relatives and friends, felt challenging. However, she got support from the department and her professors: she could take a year off and had to move to California with her family, and this is when she received a Barbour Scholarship and Rackham Dissertation Fellowship that provided her with an additional three semesters to finish her dissertation. It was also then that she started doing translations, which she still enjoys and continues doing today.

As she entered the job market, Mei-Chen found that having the whole family move constantly with temporary positions in US academic institutions was inconvenient, to say the least. Therefore, she prioritized finding a balance between a job that she liked and one that would give her a sense of security, a stable income, and enough time to continue translating, something which gave her joy and fun. This is how she found her current job as an academic success coach at the University of San Francisco. Having a Ph.D. is atypical for administration staff in higher education; one key factor that helped her get the job was her fluency in Chinese. Her teaching assistant position in Chinese Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan and the adjunct teaching position at Patten University in Oakland also taught her how to connect and assist students from different parts of the world and from different socio-economic backgrounds. Still, her work as an advisor is very different from being an instructor, in that she doesn’t only look at students’ learning process, but sees their college life more holistically: she helps them figure out whether their major or minor fit their goals, whether questions surrounding mental health, race, or finances are affecting their academic performance, and other challenges they might go through. Talking to students, gaining their trust, and seeing a side of them she wouldn’t have seen in a classroom setting is what Mei-Chen finds particularly rewarding in her work.

Like most people from her cohort, Mei-Chen’s initial goal was to become faculty one day. However, as she and her fellow graduate students advanced in the program, they discovered that this does not have to be the only path. In her own words: “I feel like you draw your own way and life develops its own way without plans! You can create a role that is unique for your life paths, a role in which you can exert your different talents.” Besides her job, she is also happy to be able to create enough time for herself: reading more stories, learning about new theories, going to museums, and continuing her translation work. She translated four books so far from junior novels to academic books by also holding contact with her publishers in Taiwan. She likes to ignite her creativity by producing and putting words on the page every day. In the future, Mei-Chen also hopes to continue publishing articles on the topics that she loves.

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This interview was conducted and edited by Duygu Ergun and Luiza Duarte Caetano as part of their work as Graduate Student Diversity Allies in the Summer of 2021.