QUEENS — Luwei Xiong says she was overwhelmed when she first arrived in Flushing from China three years ago.
She enrolled in one of the borough's largest schools, Francis Lewis High School, halfway through the year. And while she knew a little English, but didn't feel comfortable speaking it.
"I was kind of lost," she said. "I was in ESL classes and I tried to fit in, slowly."
But a few months after arriving she read a newspaper ad for Asian American Student Advocacy Project, or ASAP, saying it was looking for leaders.
"I want to be a part of that, to make a change, so I joined the program," she said.
Through the program, which encourages high school students to become active politically, Xiong said she gained a voice.
And her advocacy work for education and community empowerment helped her stand out among a field of thousands of other applicants when applying to colleges.
Next year, Xiong, 18, will be a freshman at Yale University — her dream school since seeing a documentary back home about Yung Wing, the first Chinese student in the United States.
"He went to Yale, I was really proud of him," she said. She also got into schools including Princeton, Cornell and Barnard.
Mitchel Wu, the program's director, said it was Xiong's enthusiasm that helped her stand out after applying to the program.
"It was her positive energy and also this sense about her that she wanted to do something about her community," he said. "It cut into her trying to find her identity as a new immigrant, and we found her identity was tied to her community."
Wu said he was glad to see Xiong grow from a shy student to someone demanding improvements for her fellow students.
And despite her academic achievements, it's her community focus that Wu is most proud of, he said.
"It is not the fact that she got into all these Ivy League schools, but the fact that she's such a well-rounded, focused individual."
Xiong's plan at Yale is to study public policy or economics, and she'd like to hopefully work to advance the cause of Asian Americans, whether it's politically or in schools.
Some of her friends who immigrated from China dropped out of school because they found more value in working, she said.
But her biggest issues involve what she says is a lack of representation of Asian Americans in everything from politics to schools to media.
"There's seriously a lack of representation of Asian Americans in politics and in media, we are portrayed as the very humble ones, so no one really wants to come out and speak out," she said.
Luwei Xiong with other ASAP members on a youth day at City Hall.
While growing up in China, she said she was limited in what she could do and say
"Back in China, the system is so strict, the only thing I could do was study," she said.
She did read a lot of news, even "climbing 'The Great Firewall'" to learn about western culture and information. It was the only way to learn about the world beyond her city, she said.
"I learned about those checks and balances, and I used my knowledge in real world," she said.
Through ASAP, she and other members met with the city council, held rallies in front of City Hall and collaborated with other groups to work on issues including improving school lunch.
"I'm really grateful for this society and for my school," she said.
"I came from a low-income family, my mom works very hard but still in school I can enjoy free lunch, free breakfast, and the environment gave me really abundant equal opportunities for me to explore."