CHINATOWN — Yi Wei's journey took her from the streets of Chinatown to Harvard University and eventually to every corner of the globe. Now, the St. Therese Chinese Catholic School graduate is back at her alma mater to tell kids how they can attain the same level of success.
Wei, a 2002 graduate of St. Therese, 247 W. 23rd St., was welcomed back to the school Monday with a reception and a question-and-answer session with students. She talked about her time as a underprivileged, immigrant kid growing up in Chinatown — where she played violin on street corners to raise money for her family — to her days at St. Ignatius College Prep, Harvard and beyond.
Her story is of particular interest to students not only because of her local ties and success, but because her area of expertise aligns with students' special projects this year.
St. Therese students are learning about water and the scarcity of clean water in some areas of the country and world. Wei is the director of water, sanitation and hygiene at International Development Enterprises, where she helps bring water and sanitation systems to developing countries.
"Yi could have done anything," St. Therese Principal Phyllis Cavallone-Jurek said. "What she's doing now is so inspirational."
Wei said her first goal was to be a musician, something she certainly accomplished after playing with Yo Yo Ma, Bela Fleck and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But she told students that her desire to help others around the world grew organically and stemmed from the call to service she acquired at schools like St. Therese and St. Ignatius.
"I went in to college and learned about the challenges other people faces," she said. "Certainly, looking back, St. Ignatius and St. Therese, Harvard, they laid a foundation for those values, like the power of reflection. It's important to stop, pause and think, 'Why are you doing what you're doing.'"
She helped the students learn about the plights of others, too.
Classes presented Wei their findings about water challenges in different parts of the world — one class even walked to the Chicago River, filled up buckets of river water, and walked them back to school. She told them how children throughout the world do that very activity daily, and mentioned how the St. Therese students might be able to help.
For Wei, who lives in Denver, the visit back to her alma mater and old neighborhood was a rewarding experience. She saw old faces, like her fourth-grade teacher Julie Kay ("She was one of my prized students"), as well as the family that sponsored her scholarship to St. Ignatius.
"It feels like coming home in many ways," she said. "It's something that's very important to me to get back to the community, give back and learn how I can contribute."