Finding balance

Camas junior Monica Chang juggles heavy academic load with activism, clubs and volunteering

The Girls Who Code club at Camas High School learns to use coding online during its weekly after-school meeting on Fridays. The club's mission is to close the gender gap in technology. (Photo courtesy of Monica Chang)

Camas High School junior Monica Chang is only six months into her junior year and has managed to take first place at the Oregon Bioscience Showcase, write a first-place, award-winning essay for The Fort Vancouver Sons of the American Revolution and help organize a school walkout honoring Parkland shooting victims — all on top of a class schedule filled with Advanced Placement (AP) classes and after-school clubs, including “Girls Who Code”, DECA and the Southwest Washington Red Cross Youth Council.

Monica says that her weeks are tough and jam-packed, but that, over time, she’s learned to balance her activities and still be a normal teenager who likes to play with her cat, Peeve, hang out with friends and watch “Black Mirror,” “The Office” or “Stranger Things” on Netflix.

“Not everything is full throttle all the time,” she says. “Sometimes, some activities are going to be more intense than others.”

Monica says that she wouldn’t be able to do all these things without the support of her parents, peers and teachers.

“Learning how to use the wonderful people around you (helps),” she says. “Whether that’s my wonderful parents, my teachers or even fellow club members or officers to delegate work and make sure that you’re really using all of the creativity and people on your team.”

Collaboration is often a key component, she says.

“If you can’t collaborate then you’re just going to burn out and you’re not going to be able to do everything, so teamwork is definitely very important.”

Monica admits that it may sound cheesy, but says she owes so much of her success to her mother, Yayun Yang, an internal medicine hospitalist, and her father, Ming-Jei Chang, a cardiologist.

“Your parents really shape who you are, and they’ve always been incredibly supportive.” Monica says. “My mom is such a strong-willed woman, no one is going to tell her what to do. So, I think just having them as parents and role models has really been a big influence. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t think I’d be who I am.”

Monica’s parents have raised her to always do the things she is most passionate about.

“Just make sure you care about what you’re doing and I think everything will follow naturally from that,” Monica says.

Monica has two passions that she has delved into this year: Finding ways to promote girls in underrepresented occupations and learning about United States history.

Last June, Monica created the Camas High chapter of “Girls Who Code” club, a national organization with a mission of closing the gender gap in technology.

The idea to create the club came about when Monica took an AP computer science class and realized that there were only three other girls in the class.

“I always knew on an intellectual level that us girls were underrepresented in STEM,” she says. “But I didn’t ever see it in front of my face like that before.”

After the club was approved, Monica says she was really nervous that the turnout would be low, but about 30 Camas High girls have joined the club and are enthusiastic to meet weekly and dive into coding and learn about inspiring women who work in computer science.

Monica also is the vice president of DECA at Camas and has worked with Camas student Ashley Miles to create “Girls Represent,” a campaign that encourages girls to pursue male-dominated occupations.

The campaign featured a speaker series at Camas High that included five female professionals working in male-dominated fields, who delivered informative and inspiring talks in the library during lunch.

The speakers ranged from a local architect to the first-ever female Japanese commercial pilot in history.

“This was a convenient way to expose high school girls to traditionally male careers and have them find real-world inspiration,” she explains.

Last month, the girls’ DECA project took third place in the Public Relations Project category at the DECA state competition.

The students also hosted a TED Talk Night last December at Camas High where five women; a local state representative, a Team USA football player and a neuroscience professor were among the group.

“These women delivered powerful ideas worth sharing and this event provided inspiration for the 120 students, parents and staff in attendance,” Monica says.

The campaign also extended to middle school students and the older students helped with a career explorations fair at Liberty Middle School. Seven career-oriented high school clubs set up informational booths in the cafeteria during the middle school’s lunch periods.

Although the bulk of the campaign’s work is complete, Monica says the initiatives are still going.

For example, the students will host Gender Equality Day at Camas High on Wednesday, March 28 as part of the school’s Unity Week.

The day will focus on the gender gap in the workforce, and there will be trivia games and other activities for students to participate in during lunch, as well as an informational after-school meeting with a raffle.

“A combination of societal stigma and lack of female representation often discourages girls from pursuing male-dominated occupations,” Monica says. “While girls are fully capable of excelling at these careers, they are not always given the resources and the support to do so and reach their fullest potential. Our campaign aims to change that. We hope by bringing in female role models and providing in-school opportunities, this real-world inspiration can make a difference in the Camas community.”

Monica says that she loves learning, but doesn’t have one consistent subject that she’s more passionate about.

However, this year, Monica has taken a real interest in U.S. history, which led to her writing an award-winning essay. Monica’s “Freedom of the Press: A Pillar of Modern Democracy” essay was awarded first place in the George S. and Stella M. Knight category in the contest by the Fort Vancouver Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution.

The essay explored the historical background of the freedom of the press, Supreme Court cases and events such as the Pentagon Papers, and connected those events with the Donald Trump administration and the current atmosphere of news.

“The prompt was asking us to write about the constitutional ideal or someone associated with the constitution,” Monica says. “I chose the freedom of the press because I feel like the media is very much in the public conscience right now.”

Monica says she discovered that, throughout history, freedom of the press has been one of the most important checks on holding government officials accountable.

In her essay, Monica discussed other countries that don’t have a free press.

“I think one of the main things is that, because we’re so blessed to always be born with these freedoms, that a lot of time we take it for granted,” she says. “Which is also why I wanted to highlight other countries that don’t have those freedoms. I think maybe because I’ve always had (the freedom), I don’t necessarily notice (when) the freedom of the press is helping me.”

Monica says that she strongly believes that the freedom is very important.

“I think it helps in an indirect way, just in terms of highlighting government corruption or misdeeds.”

Monica’s curiosity has brought on many projects for her and also opportunities, such as working with Dr. Barbara Sorg, researcher and professor at Washington State University Vancouver.

“Monica was the most curious high school student I’ve ever met,” Sorg says. “She and I were attending a table at a STEM Girls event and Monica began asking me lots of questions about my work and science in general. She was eager to become involved with scientific experiments that would go beyond the laboratory-type coursework she had in high school.”

About a week after that meeting, Sorg emailed Monica and invited her to work in her lab over the summer. The Camas High student was able to help beta-test a newly developed program and help launch a program now used for studies in the lab.

The program that was developed by Dr. John Harkness, postdoctoral fellow in the lab, has sped up the analysis process so that it is 50 to 100 times faster than the old method and has now been used by other researchers in several countries, Sorg says.

The first thing that Sorg noticed about Monica was her enthusiasm for knowledge.

“She is cheery, warm, outgoing and is gifted in many areas,” Sorg says. “She’s a broad-thinker and always ready for what’s around the corner. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Monica and working with her. I’ve no doubt her many talents and inquisitiveness will take her very, very far.”

Monica says that meeting Sorg was one of those crazy moments of serendipity.

Monica adds that, it is because of women like Kimberly Newman, a Camas High School teacher who organized the STEM Girls event that brought together many professionals and young women, that she was able to connect with Sorg.

“(Newman) definitely helped inspire me to focus on female representation in male-dominated fields, and I try to spread that message through “Girls Who Code” and “Girls Represent”,” Monica says. “It feels like I should try to do something that brings things full circle or try to give back.”