Storytelling, Tori Elliot

When Suyin So looks back over her career, which has spanned journalism, law, non-profits, and education, she can clearly see the common theme. “The thread that connects the various things I’ve done…is a fairly deep sense, from a pretty young age, around injustice and a desire to act around that.”

But it took several years, and careers, before that drive manifested in Central Queens Academy Charter School (CQA), which serves mostly immigrant and non-English speaking students from families like So’s.

So’s parents are Indonesian immigrants of Chinese descent. They both studied medicine in Germany, but by the time they completed their education, Indonesia was in the midst of an authoritarian crack-down that targeted communists, leftists, and ethnic Chinese Indonesians, like So’s parents. Unable to return home, So’s parents immigrated to the US.

From an early age, So had a deep interest in storytelling, and she began her career as a broadcast journalist. She attended Georgetown Law School, intending to return to journalism, but while studying law, So became passionate about advocating for immigrant communities, especially Asian immigrant communities. After graduating, instead of rejoining a media company, she became a litigator.

It was while working as a lawyer in New York City that So joined the board of a nonprofit, a role that would push her into the world of social impact. The nonprofit, based in New York City’s Chinatown, was a mentorship program for the children of low-income Chinese immigrants. “I saw up close the ability of the public school district to serve this particular community,” she says. “And it was an education in the sense of learning where the gaps were.”

So when the opportunity to found CQA arose, So saw it as something that both the Asian-American community and New York City needed. “That was very meaningful to me,” she says.

Located in Queens, the city’s most diverse borough where more than 138 languages are spoken, CQA estimates that roughly 70-80% of its students don’t speak English at home. CQA spends nearly double the amount of time on English language instruction than other public schools in the city in order to help students catch up.

So says that starting out was an uncertain process, even though founding a school meant that there was certain funding offered by the state. “What is fundamental is that people are investing in you,” she says. “That was very tenuous for me on an emotional level. I had to sell—for better or for worse—me.”

As national and local debate about the charter movement in public schools remains heated, So says she prefers to keep her focus internal. “I think it’s really important for founders and entrepreneurs to focus on getting their own shop in order,” she says. “I learned really early on that you cannot be too many things so you really just have to focus on the things that make any organization good... My concern is what are we doing for our students and our teachers.”

But So hopes that in the future CQA and its team will be able to be a part of the improvement of the overall public school system, and greater part of the conversation. “We want to believe that we are doing things that can be scaled,” she says.


You can learn more about Suyin and Central Queens Academy Here

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