As a prominent figure in the University’s student advocacy scene, Robyn Wong Min Xuan ’23 has pushed forth change and critical reflections regarding life on campus. From helping with the Wesleyan Union of Student Employees (WesUSE), which includes workers in the Office of Residential Life (ResLife), to helping revitalize Disorientation, Wong took time from her busy schedule to sit down with The Argus and discuss her experiences on campus, extracurricular involvements, and personal reflections as she approaches graduation.
The Argus: Why do you think you were nominated as WesCeleb?
Robyn Wong Min Xuan: I think the practical answer is that I’m involved in quite a number of different spaces on campus. And I think I’m also quite a visible member of the campus community within the spaces I’m involved in. So maybe that’s that. And also, my friends and closest people around me [have been] nominating me incessantly, but you don’t have to put that in The Argus article.
A: So, you’re an anthropology and College of Social Studies [CSS] major?
RWMX: Yeah, I’m an anthro-CSS double major. I initially applied to college thinking I’d be an English major, because that was the main thing I did in high school. But then I applied to Wesleyan, thinking I would branch out, do something different. I was looking at the College of Letters and religion; I took courses in both of them as a freshman but didn’t like them. So I was still looking for alternatives. CSS came up as a really attractive interdisciplinary opportunity, and I was also really drawn to the community aspect of it. Being in an academic community and learning from peers is something I really enjoy and wanted to benefit from, in addition to all of these programming benefits that the CSS provides.
Unfortunately, as you and I both know, that did not pan out because of COVID, and I didn’t realize that CSS is more multidisciplinary than it is interdisciplinary. The connections that you make between subjects are something you need to make yourself. So yeah, I think it didn’t really live up to my expectations.
But anthropology has been a saving grace, a beacon of hope, a life-changing experience. I took my first class in my freshman spring, “Anthropology of the Senses” [ANTH256], with a visiting professor, and I just knew that that was what I wanted to do. I really appreciated the way that anthropology entangled things and complicated the world while still being able to articulate that entanglement. And the more I delved into it, the more I was caught by the methodology of being reflexive, being both a participant and observer, focusing on storytelling, [as well as] its activist slant. I think it’s made me a much more critical thinker as well as a more empathetic person.
A: What are some of the organizations that you’ve been part of on campus?
RWMX: Maybe I’ll start with the small things because those are the fun stuff. I’ve been fluffing around since my freshman year in various different clubs. I remember my freshman year with Miranda [DeRossi ’23], my roommate, we did swing club together. I’ve also joined clay club, climbing club, [and] boxing club. They’ve been really fun. I also used to teach yoga with Wesleyan Body and Mind. But my main involvements have been with the campus employment opportunities I’ve had, and advocacy organizations I’ve been a part of. I think the biggest one and the most long-standing one is ISAB, the International Student Advisory Board. I joined as a freshman in the fall and [have] co-chaired it since my sophomore year. It’s a student-led board of of international students, and we basically advocate for [the] needs [of the international student community] and function as a bridge between students and the International Student Services team at Wesleyan, which includes the Office of International Student Affairs [OISA] as well as other international-oriented offices on campus, like the Gordon Career Center and Residential Life and the deans. We advocate for international students’ needs, in terms of immigration stuff as well as academic, career, and [socio-cultural] issues. I also started working in the Gordon Career Center [as a sophomore] and in ResLife my junior year. And those employment opportunities really helped me gain a better understanding of the administrative problems on campus from those two perspectives.
I think that’s all culminated, in the past one and a half years, with the ResLife union last year and also with the [reformation] of Disorientation in the spring of 2022. Disorientation has been the culmination of all of these threads of thought because it is a student organization on campus that is dedicated to interrogating Wesleyan’s institutional identity in critical and fun ways. The main way we do this is through the zine, which is written by students for students, to provide a candid view [of] campus politics, resources, and culture. But in [our] iteration of it, we’ve expanded its purview beyond the magazine to encompass building and promoting dialogue, coalition, and solidarity between various groups on campus, including students, faculty, and staff. Its genesis involved me and my friends coming together and realizing that we face the same issues, despite being in different parts of campus, and also felt the same feeling of disappointment. Our expectations of University life did not meet the reality of our situations. And so it came from an affect of disappointment, I suppose, where we began organizing, trying to diagnose and articulate the problem, and then mobilizing to create solutions, in terms of top-down policy changes as well as bottom-up education and cultural awareness-raising and campus engagement initiatives.
A: How has working on Disorientation been?
RWMX: It’s been fun. I think that’s the main thing. It [has] felt really joyous to finally have a space to mobilize through because being an advocate or doing any sort of advocacy work is really hard and tiring. I experienced burnout when I was a sophomore because I was doing international student advocacy, but that was also when COVID was happening. I was totally isolated from the community and resources, temporally as well as spatially, and it was the height of the Trump administration, so anti-immigrant sentiments [were at a peak]. But that period of burnout remains in stark contrast to what we’re doing now, which is [building] a community that prioritizes optimism, joy, collaboration, friendship, and not just bashing the University. We’re not an antagonistic group—we hope to build and reimagine and reinvent what Wesleyan can be, because we like this place so much.
A: As an international student and working as part of ISAB, how has that impacted you during your time at Wesleyan?
RWMX: It’s been up and down. ISAB was my introduction to advocacy. Because I grew up in Singapore and Singapore’s political stance is to depoliticize its citizenry, I didn’t have a very well-developed conception of what it meant to be an advocate, or what it meant to be political, or what it meant to [stand] for social justice. In fact, a lot of those words might be regarded as dirty words back home. So, that was my first introduction to advocacy, and I’m glad I had that. It was really difficult to do over COVID and really difficult when the Director of OISA left in, I want to say, Spring 2021 because she created ISAB, but also she was a close friend and mentor to me. Since then, it’s been really tiring but also fulfilling to keep the organization going.
Since her departure, we’ve mostly been focusing on developing relations with the new Office of International Student Affairs Director and we also just hired a new assistant director [Assistant Director of International Student Engagement Dari Jigjidsuren]. She’s going to help with cultural programming, and that’s so awesome because petitioning for a third full-time position at OISA has been something our club has been doing since I came to campus. I think that it’s important just to have a space where international students are talking about international student issues, because the community at Wes was so fragmented even before COVID, and COVID made it even more fragmented. That sort of student voice is very hard to hear. So, I’m glad we exist. But, I think that there’s still so much more to be done. And I’m sad [that] I can’t be here for it, but I also have lots of faith in the rest of the [board] members to keep it going.
A: What are your thoughts on student activism at Wesleyan?
RWMX: I have so many thoughts, I’m thinking about [what] I want to prioritize for you. I think there are three things that I want to say, and I think they all in some way tie in two big ideas, which are, ‘What is Wesleyan about?’ and ‘How do we live meaningful lives with a commitment to justice?’ I think these are also big questions I’ve been asking myself. I just came out of a conversation with a friend who called Wesleyan’s activism culture a sort of competitive culture or performative culture. And I see that playing out: people might not compete for social clout [in the] traditional way, but people [are] competing for this. [It] can sometimes become a hindrance to real sincere work that needs to be done. But I think this also plays into the idea of accessible activism and what it means to be an activist. I’ve come to the conclusion that activism is not a status; it’s an orientation towards the world. It’s about, in whatever space you’re in, being able to feel empowered to make the choices that you want to make and also empower others to do the same in a way that is just, fair, and equitable. Broadening the definition of what activism means, I think, will make it a lot more accessible because not everyone wants to be a social justice warrior. Let’s be real, not everyone wants to do this type of shit. But people can still be radical without having to call themselves an activist. Sorry, this is like really scattered thoughts.
A: I did ask you a very big question.
RWMX: It was a gigantic question. I think, also, the last thing is to do with how it’s difficult to be an activist, and to have identified injustices in the world and not feel down because of it. Activist burnout is real, especially if you are doing it in isolation. I’ve had a lot of friends who’ve experienced this. And so the antidote to that, I think, has been approaching activism with a spirit of love and care and joy and also through community. And I’ve been thinking a lot about this, because if that is the solution—to have community in order to feel the joyfulness of making change collectively—how do you do that if you cannot find your community? How do you access change-making and justice and radicalism and activism if your communities that already exist do not orient themselves towards that sort of paradigm or way of living?
I think [of] this specifically in terms of my own context of being from Singapore, and being from a family that does not have the same educational [background and] liberal vocabulary that we have. But I also think about this for other people, too. My professor provided me with an answer yesterday. She encouraged me to think about community not as a noun, but as a verb. So, like a process of communing, and creating that solidarity that we want to see. And I’m very captured by this notion of not thinking about things in static terms, but thinking about things as a process of becoming, adopting a politics of becoming, adopting a politics of verbs instead of nouns, and seeing the agency and the constant process of negotiation that comes along with that. Anthropology has provided me [with] a lot of answers to the sort of questions I [have] had about theories of change, and what it means to be an activist. I can go more into depth about that, but I’ll stop here for now.
A: What has been your favorite place on campus?
RWMX: Place? Oh, my God, what an out-of-pocket question.
A: Changing gears a little bit.
RWMX: When it’s warm outside, I like grass patches. Not that that’s a place, but grass patches are nice when it’s warm and green.
A: Do you have a favorite grass patch?
RWMX: College Row is pretty good. Honestly, under that tree is a pretty prime location. You know, that big one over there?
Foss Hill is sometimes too open and voyeuristic. Maybe not that. I like Pi [Cafe], because I like the hustle. I like sitting at the high-top chairs. My favorite thing about Pi is talking with the staff members there. They are so sweet. And they’re so nice. And they give me coffee every day. It brightens up my day to see them. I also like the Career Center, actually, because I’ve been working there for a while [and] the community is really great. And in spite of it being the Career Center, we have a lot of fun and gossip a lot. It’s good.
A: You talked about professors and classes earlier. Do you have some top classes or professors?
RWMX: Dude, I mean, anthro classes constantly blow my mind. [Assistant Professor of Government and CSS Tutor] Nina Hagel’s class blew my mind. I’m taking really good classes this semester, in terms of like big brain classes. The class I’m currently taking, “Anthropology of Food & Justice” [ANTH312] with [Associate Professor of Anthropology] Anu [Aradhana] Sharma has been fantastic. Food functions as a sort of entry point [to] thinking about society, history, culture, politics and justice more broadly, and I think it’s been a really great environment to be in. I’ve also liked…oh God, I’m going to start listing out classes and then it’s going to be a list, and it’s going to be my whole transcript. I’m [taking] a fun class right now, my film class with [Professor of Film Studies] Lisa Dombrowski. I’ve been waiting so long to take it, and it’s been really good. Other fun classes have been “West African Dance” with [Assistant Professor of Dance] Professor Iddi [Saaka]. My sophomore year and then last semester, I took Japanese woodblock printing with [Artist-in-Residence in Art and East Asian Studies] Keiji Shinohara. So cool, so dope. That’s the art studio class. It was really awesome. My favorite professors—I don’t know if I want to say this in case they read this, but Anu Sharma is definitely up there. She’s a guru and I love her. In general, I’ve really enjoyed classes that have made me rethink the way I think about the world and have had really great discussion sections and radical pedagogies.
A: We talked a lot about classes and advocacy. Is there another activity you would like to highlight?
RWMX: Boxing club was super fun. I’ve not done it this semester, but I did do it. It’s such a good vibe [and] space. We practice in the wrestling room, which is hilarious because it’s like wrestlers, and then us. There’s an external coach that comes in—his name is Coach Kyle. He used to box professionally, and he’s this gigantic dude, and he’s super muscley. And he’s like,“Come on guys, train, work hard, work hard.” And it’s so completely the opposite of [the] spaces I’m usually involved in, which are honestly full of queer women, feminine energies of care, and radical liberal spaces. So doing that has been really fun. The boxing community is also really great. It’s actually very diverse in terms of not just class years, but also gender and identities like race and sexuality. It’s a very wholesome space. And I like that. I think a lot of people come in and feel very empowered in their ability to defend themselves, though in the first practice, Coach Kyle was like, “I know some of you may be here because you want to box professionally.” And I was like, “What?” So yeah, there’s also that energy.
A: So you don’t have plans to box professionally?
RWMX: Oh, my God, honestly. No. But it’s fun. It’s very, very fun. And I’ve unfortunately not gotten to the point where I could just spar with people. But maybe that’s something I’ll continue doing back home in Asia. Thailand is very close to Singapore, and they’re famous for muay Thai boxing. So I might go and do some of that.
A: Do you have any advice for current and prospective students?
RWMX: Yeah. Self-knowledge is really important at Wesleyan. So know where you come from, but also think about who you want to become. The second thing is in terms of resources at Wesleyan, use them. That’s not just in terms of the physical, monetary resources or financial resources or learning resources available here. I think at the crux of it, the most important thing, is building relationships with people at Wesleyan. Learning with [and] from people and having those networks, even if they’re weak networks, is incredibly powerful at the end of the day. And have fun.
A: The classic advice.
RWMX: Have fun, totally. What’s life without that?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Andrew Lu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.