The author, Li Sai joined NYLC as a Fellow from the U.S. China Relations Committee. She has since returned to China and her work at Beijing Qixing Foundation for Youth Development.
Buon-fig-li-o. Finally, on my third try, I mumbled these four syllables right. That’s Christian’s family name. In Italian, it means “good son.”
I get to know Christian from the languages I don’t understand - HTML, CSS, Java, you name it. When you are browsing the National Youth Leadership Council’s new website, he is the one behind the scenes. As a recent graduate from Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount, Minnesota, he applied what he has learned about computer science in order to upgrade NYLC’s website with a new membership portal and many other exciting features, like an updated online bookstore and many service-learning resources.
“How was a student with only a two-year degree able to build such a complex system?” I wonder. “Well, I didn’t build the system myself,” he responded. “Mostly, I was working with tools and programs built by professionals. I tweak little bits here and there, and I also do a lot of searching online and asking my professors and classmates for help.”
According to Christian, learning by doing is the way to go. Throughout the process, Christian not only leveraged his skills to solve problems for an organization, but also boosted his self-confidence from a career perspective through this hands-on experience. As opposed to someone who graduated from college with a degree, but little experience, he can already tell an employer that he has worked with a database and created a webpage. Yet reaching this point is not easy. “There were many challenges along the way, but these were not challenges that ever made me wonder why I applied for this position. These were all challenges that I liked.”
I asked him what led him to seek to challenge himself at NYLC. A chance meeting with Rob Shumer, a professor and philanthropist on NYLC’s board of directors, is part of the reason, but not all. “My high school was deeply devoted to service, and there were a lot of volunteer opportunities.” In his senior year, Christian worked with adults with developmental disabilities in a visual and performing art center. Together, they did many improvised acting exercises, and he also made sure that their individual needs were met. For example, he would keep the volume of the room in control for those who had sensory issues. “I was more of a facilitator rather than a caretaker.” In real life, people with disabilities are often treated like children - here is your TV, go watch it - but they are human beings who want to engage with the world around them and with each other. “We can’t direct and treat them like puppets to create the scene. These are people we should work alongside, and not just feel sorry for.” Indeed, when we shift our view, “disabled” can easily become “differently abled.”
This experience also led him to understand that he would not feel satisfied with a well-paying job alone. Although he has been around people with wealth for most of his life, acquiring material goods and endless consumption have never motivated him. “There is no part of me that ever thought ‘I won’t be happy until I make this amount of money.’” Instead, what brings him joy is getting involved in a way that makes a difference and helps the people who need the most. I am reminded again of his family name - “good son”.
His passion for social good is rooted not just in his name, but in his family. His grandfather was a dentist living in Revere, Massachusetts. When Christian was young, he often heard stories of people gaving a bag of tomatoes or a couple of lobsters to his grandfather to cover their treatment cost. “My grandfather really didn’t care about money, he cared about fixing people’s teeth.” Kindness passed down. Christian was raised to think of others first and be mindful of others’ needs.
Now, working at Caribou Coffee, he makes sure to remember customers’ routine order or uncommon name. “It would make their days much easier.” Like people who are addicted to coffee, Christian is addicted to getting satisfaction out of helping others. What a world we would live in if altruism became the caffeine of our life!
I have encountered many Americans like Christian, but I also hear criticism about this country being very individualistic. “I think,” he told me, “that there is a big part of my generation that has started to realize it’s not enough to simply fend for ourselves.” This, I believe, partially comes from a longing for human connection. For instance, Christian and many of his friends must drive a long way to work, which leaves them spending much time in cars and away from other people. A nice paycheck can only get people so far, and human connection has the power to solve problems that money can’t.
While I admire the altruistic values that Christian carries, I also wonder how to grow a heart for something bigger than oneself. The answer Christian gave me is “getting involved”. Even though sometimes the reason we go to a volunteer event is simply because we don’t have anything better to do, or we want to look good on college applications, when we look at it afterwards, we feel great about what we did and want to do more. Then, once we get involved in our communities, we must take the next step. “We should not forget to create opportunities for those who are coming in.”
Providing opportunities for others is something Christian would love to achieve along with his career. Enthusiastic about art, he wants to be an artist, but he wants to be known for more than just art. “I want to work with other artists that aren’t typically given enough spotlight. I want to invite them in and give them a spotlight of their own, but in a way that does not frame them as poor, struggling people to pity.” It reminds me of his attitude when working with people with disabilities during high school. I can say for sure that viewing less advantaged people as different, rather than deficient, is deeply embedded in his past and future.
Speaking of the future, Christian is embarking on an exciting journey - he will study at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota this coming fall! He will not have to spend four years there, but only two, thanks to his associate degree at DCTC. However, four years ago, he had a different plan.
“I went to Providence College in Rhode Island in 2015, but wasn’t emotionally prepared, so I came home.” Two years later, he started with two classes in DCTC, hoping to transfer those credits to Providence College when he returned in the fall. But this decision didn’t lead him back to Rhode Island. “The teacher of my English class was really supportive! She introduced me to the idea of getting the first two years’ worth of credits at DCTC without so much debt.” Up until then, Christian was struggling to decide between getting a job and going to college. “I was thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll get an English degree,’ but there is a common misconception in America that if you major in English, sociology, or psychology, you will end up doing something irrelevant to what you studied. I wasn’t sure whether it would worth my time.” One day after class, he and his English teacher stayed for an hour talking about the possibilities, and it was at that time that he realized that, through the lens of English, he could learn about many other areas that he is interested in.
For many people, DCTC is where you learn how to brew beer or fix cars, but for Christian, it was the starting point of his journey into higher education. More importantly, it is proof that he is ready to move forward in his life. “That is my biggest accomplishment so far,” Christian said with a relieved smile.
After my two-hour interview with him, I no longer worry about how to pronounce his name. I know that even if I forget, I will always remember what a “good son” looks like.
Fun facts about Christian:
Q1: If you didn’t have to sleep, what would you do with the extra time?
A: I would do a lot more creative writing.
Q2: What is the most creative thing you have ever done?
A: Playing Dungeons & Dragons. (Before playing, Christian always writes a brief recap of what happened the last week to recount to his fellow players. He needs some rest!)
Q3: What is something that your friends would consider “so you”?
A: Wearing shirts with floral patterns, and reading fiction, reviews, and online articles.