Emily Quan, a Brigham Young University Honors Program student and computer engineering major, has been selected as a 2022 Truman Scholarship Finalist. The Truman Scholarship awards $30,000 towards graduate school to each of approximately 50 juniors throughout the country. These students demonstrate superior academic ability, exceptional leadership, and a strong record of service. This scholarship is the premier graduate fellowship in the United States for those pursuing careers as public service leaders.
As a Truman Scholarship Finalist, Emily recently interviewed with a panel from the Truman Foundation and will find out if she is a recipient in the coming weeks.
Emily’s background in computer networking and her experiences growing up in Beijing and Hong Kong led her to study the implications of Chinese internet censorship for international relations and cyber policy. In a recent interview, Emily spoke about her background and experiences at BYU and how these events prepared her for the Truman Scholarship and a life of public service.
Q. How did you decide to pursue a career in public service?
A. Both of my parents worked in public service. My dad worked at various US embassies throughout Asia, so I spent part of my childhood living in different countries. That gave me a valuable perspective on what it’s like to work for the government internationally. What I saw, though, was for my parents, working for the government was simply an extension of their lifelong commitment to service.
Service has always been an important part of what our family is. When I was growing up, we were always involved in something. When we lived in Thailand, there were many refugees in our ward, so we brought suitcases of food to church every week to feed the whole ward. When we lived in Beijing, we had dozens of people over to our apartment every Sunday. Right now, we’re really involved in helping kids in our community with schoolwork, so there’s always at least a handful of middle or high schoolers over at the house working on math or reading. In every instance, we’ve made incredible friends and built communities as we’ve shared our quirky interests and gifts with everyone around us. Ultimately, it's about sharing who we are and what we have and learning and growing with the people around us in the process. Public service is just an extension of that.
As someone studying engineering, I’ve noticed a lot of jobs in my field are very technical to the point where meaning and purpose feel stripped from the work. I’m grateful for people who do those types of jobs, but I’m personally more interested in the bigger picture. For me, public service is a meaningful way to apply my engineering and critical thinking skills to a larger mission. Whatever I end up doing, I hope to never lose sight of the impact I have on individuals around me.
Q. What are your plans?
A. Cybersecurity is a major concern for our country right now, and I hope to be a part of efforts to secure our national infrastructure from future attacks. I plan to pursue a master’s degree in engineering and public policy to inform my contributions to U.S. cybersecurity approaches for the East Asian region.
Q. How has BYU prepared you to "go forth to serve”?
A. One thing I've learned from BYU is there are many unexpected places to gain an education. Many of the most influential experiences I’ve had haven’t necessarily been in a classroom.
As an accompanist for ballet classes at BYU, one of my favorite parts of the job is learning from the different pedagogical styles of the teachers I play for. There’s so much I’ve learned, even though I know little about ballet. I’ve noticed meaning in the art stems from careful observation of everyday life. Ballet is demanding and making it beautiful requires nuance and careful practice. The teachers who are the most effective at disseminating this are the ones for whom ballet and dance permeate every facet of their lives. It’s inspiring to watch a teacher effectively use everyday imagery to shape extraordinary dancers—an art in itself. In a way, I think that encompasses a lot of what public service stands for: finding meaning in small things as we work to shape larger goals.
Also, as an accompanist, you don’t have a set repertoire—you simply play for whatever exercise the teacher asks for at the moment. Since the dancers have set movements for their exercises, I try to mold my music to match their movements. This goes both ways, though. An important part of the dancers’ training is to develop musicality and learn to respond to the music. We’re each other’s primary audiences. When we both get it right—and there are a lot of mistakes along the way—it can be quite magical when the music and movements come together. Each class is an act of creation where we learn how to be more effective artists. It's a lesson I hope to integrate into my future work in public service: you have to be constantly listening and reacting to manage the needs in the room.
Q. Do you have a particular experience at BYU that has had a meaningful/formative impact on you?
A. Writing the Honors 320 "Great Questions" essay was impactful for me. The course centers on finding a “great question”—a broad question that’s not really answerable—and writing an extended paper on it. Julie Radle, who teaches the Honors 320 class, is one of my favorite instructors at BYU. She puts so much care and guidance into the class you can’t help but come away inspired.
I explored the question, “What do we owe to each other?” I chose this question because I learned more about the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre during the summer. While I was discussing it with my dad, he mentioned that the apartment we lived in, 10 years after the massacre, had literal bullet holes left from the incident. Something about how uncomfortably close this timeline felt, how our family looks Chinese on the outside but is quite American on the inside, and the entangled fates of countries opposed to each other, made me want to explore the connection between who we are and what our obligations to others are. In the process, I learned grappling with a “great question” really means coming face-to-face with other, starker questions: who you are, what your origins mean, and how all of this shapes the lens through which you view the world. When I was done writing the essay, the message was all over the place—it spilled into discussions on sexuality, computer memory, and Balanchine. But the exercise itself was illuminating because it helped me redefine who I was in the context of the world around me.
Dr. Lundrigan, my research mentor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, was also hugely influential in encouraging me to pursue graduate school. Good mentor figures can make a world of difference when you’re trying out different possible future plans.
Q. How did you hear about the Truman Scholarship?
A. The first time I heard about some graduate-level scholarships was when I was reading Tara Westover’s memoir Educated the summer before my freshman year at BYU. She mentions her experience receiving the Gates Cambridge award while at BYU in her memoir, and I remember looking it up afterward and learning about some of the other scholarships out there, including the Truman.
Q. How did you prepare to apply for the Truman Scholarship?
A. BYU requires its Truman applicants to start the process early, which, as a chronic procrastinator, was helpful for me. Then, throughout the process, constant revision, and feedback from the Office of Prestigious Scholarships advisors (shoutout to Amy and Audrey!) was valuable for putting together an application that said what I wanted it to say. Other things that helped were going down rabbit holes researching various topics, getting lost in books, and taking long walks.
Q. What advice do you have for those thinking of applying for the Truman Scholarship?
A. Go for it! You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. If you feel unqualified to apply, 1) everyone else probably feels about the same, and 2) the process itself is qualifying because it makes you articulate and clarify your future plans and passions. The process feels daunting, but the act of applying is extremely valuable, and I’m grateful for all the incredible mentor figures I gained along the way.
The 2023 Truman Scholarship application opens this fall for students who are in the penultimate year of their undergraduate degree. The national deadline is in early February. Those interested in learning more about the Truman Scholarship, please email email@example.com to set up an appointment with an advisor in National Scholarships and Prestigious Fellowships.