Sisters Faith and Debbie Wen pose for their portraits. Debbie is sitting on a stool and Faith stands to her right, resting her arm on her sister's shoulder.
Sisters Faith (left) and Debbie (right) Wen ’19

Debbie Wen ’19

Majors: English and classics
Before Amherst, lived in: Missouri; Minnesota; Kunming, China; Beijing; Singapore
Music playing at photo shoot: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2

On the idea of belonging:

My first thought is belonging as in “someone’s belongings.” But my second thought is about belonging on campus or someplace. My sister and I grew up in China, and we moved around a bit in China, living in Kunming and then Beijing. And then we moved to Missouri when I was in eighth grade, and actually to a pretty rural town, which had like 2,500 people. Back home in Missouri, we live on a farm, so it was a different environment from where we had grown up. Also, obviously, the people and the culture were both very different. But I think it took me a while to adjust. I think once I had adjusted, I had really good friends in Missouri, and very understanding teachers. It took me to my sophomore year in high school to feel a sense of being fully acclimated, or fully belonging there.

Then, coming to Amherst, I made really good friends my freshman year: Appleton had a really great community. I lived on an all-girls substance-free floor. I met my roommate, with whom I’m still rooming, and who I think is one of my best friends here. Then I also met a lot of friends through Appleton, so that was a really great community.

But it took me, I’d say, about towards the end-ish of my first semester to feel fully at home. Then, my sophomore year, I felt, with one year of college under my belt, I have my friends and I’ve declared my majors, so I have kind of a place for myself on campus.

I’ve liked all of my classes so far, I’ve found them all very interesting, and my professors have been very, very good professors, and very nice people, and that’s helped with belonging too. I remember my freshman seminar professor—he had us over for Thanksgiving break, those of us that were staying [in Amherst]. [College Librarian] Bryn Geffert also had us at his house for an end-of-the-semester course. I think that really helped to make me feel welcome.

Also, I’m very active in ACF, Amherst Christian Fellowship, and I have a lot of friends from there. I think that also helped to find that place of belonging.

Does belonging have something to do with my faith? Yes. I think that it’s just kind of trusting God that He had a plan for me, and that He was always with me, even if I encountered certain troubles, or I wasn’t feeling comfortable, or maybe I missed home—knowing that He is always with me. It may seem unpleasant now, but it’s part of His plan. Also, it’s very encouraging to belong to a community, or, in Christian-speak, a fellowship of other believers. I think it’s very vital to be able to talk to someone about things like these, or to read the Bible together, worship every Sunday. It’s very encouraging, because otherwise, it just feels very isolated, I guess. Yeah.

ACF has something called First-Year Bible Studies, which are Bible studies only for freshmen. And then you also get to know some of the upperclassmen who are leading the Bible study, so that really helped me to get to know ACF and feel more at home.

Then something else that I’ve been thinking is how I work in Phonathon [a telephone fundraiser for the College]. It’s interesting to hear the alumni’s stories of what it was like on campus, or what their impression of Amherst was. I guess it might sound a little sentimental, but it kind of gives me a bit of a connection to what it was like, especially talking to older alumni.

But one thing that some people do bring up is this sense of Amherst was not what it was when they were there as undergrads. After hearing all that and after working at Phonathon, I feel like Amherst has changed since they were undergrads, but it’s still Amherst. If they talk to me and I hear that they did not have very fond memories of Amherst, I feel like being at Amherst is kind of what you make of it. It may happen that there are certain things that taint your memory of Amherst. But because of all these different factors—friends, professors, the ACF—I’ve just been fortunate enough to have a very positive experience with Amherst so far.

On the experience of being photographed:

At the photo shoot, we started out sitting on stools, and those were fairly still images, and then Maria wanted us to maybe move around a little bit. So she put on some Rachmaninoff, because my sister plays the piano, and I think Rachmaninoff is one of her favorite composers. So she put some of that on, and then we started dancing a little bit to the music.

But I think that it might have been during one of the breaks when they were adjusting the lights or something like that. We were just doing silly poses, and Faith was pulling on my braid like this, which is a familiar gesture from childhood. So Maria saw that and she’s like, “Oh, that’s really cool,” so she kind of had us transition to me braiding Faith’s hair, because her hair was down and mine was already in a braid.

I’ve had long hair my whole life. My sister has had long hair her whole life too, and our hair is about the same length. We’ve always been the kids with the longest hair at whatever situation we were in, and so we had to learn how to take care of our hair so it wasn’t crazy and flying everywhere.

Braiding is one of the easiest ways of getting our hair arranged, because sometimes a ponytail can just fall out. I think I was maybe 13 or 14 when I started doing my own hair, and then learning how to braid. First, it was just a simple braid down the side, and then fishtail braids or French braids and things like that. I think Faith picked up doing hair a bit earlier than I did, so she was a little more advanced. Sometimes we’ll watch a tutorial on YouTube for a really intricate hairstyle that might be really hard to do on yourself.  

With braiding, I think it’s relaxing to sit there and not have to do anything, and have it all happen, or have someone else do it all for you. Then, also, you kind of think to yourself that it’s probably going to look better than if you had done it without having been able to see it.

Faith Wen ’20

Major: Law, jurisprudence and social thought and music
Before Amherst, lived in: Missouri; Minnesota; Kunming, China; Beijing, China; Singapore
Music playing at photo shoot: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2

On the idea of belonging:

I guess what comes to mind, about belonging, is home and family. At least for me, that’s what I belong to the most and the longest. But obviously right now I’m not at my home, nor am I completely surrounded by my family. My sister is here, which is really good.

But right now, what does “belong” mean? Well, I’m part of the Amherst Christian Fellowship. My sister is actually one of my Bible study leaders, which is kind of funny. I’m like “Don’t try to teach me!” But I was in the prayer room with one of my friends, and afterwards we just kind of naturally transitioned into a time of conversation. She was talking about, “Do you feel like you interact differently with people here than you do with your friends back home? Or, like, how have you changed?” And I thought, “Oh, that’s a really big question.”

I like to joke that my sister was the first one in my high school’s history to ever come to Amherst, and I will most likely be the last one, at least for a few years. We’re from Missouri, you know, so Amherst is not a nearby college, and most people have not heard of it. And it’s a small rural public high school, and only a few of us used the Common App, and most people didn’t even know what that was. It was just, like, me and my friend and my sister taking AP online classes, and doing the standardized tests, and taking summer programs at colleges. Here, it’s like everyone, or almost everyone, kind of did that.

I still had a good, small peer group who had the same academic or intellectual interests and values. But a lot of my friends were athletes and also did well in school, but for them it was more about “doing well” rather than this pursuit of learning and knowledge. At Amherst, though, I’m just surrounded by people who have very similar academic and intellectual values. And this makes it very easy for me to be more sociable, because that’s just already something we have in common.

And then the Christian Fellowship is such a vibrant group on campus. So to have that group, where you share academic and intellectual values but also religious beliefs, is another common kind of bond. So I feel like I’m more involved in the social aspect of the community here than I was in high school. Whether they are English majors in ACF, or neuroscience majors, or whatever, our faith links us. We share this, and we can talk about it, and we can develop.

Chinese names are sometimes based on how you want it to sound or if a certain sound is more pleasing. But sometimes it’s based on putting together words and using meanings, and then deriving your name from meanings. My Chinese name is Wei-Jen. Wei comes from the word weiguo, which means “to defend”, and Jen means truth. So my name means “defend the truth.” My sister’s name is Ai-Jen. Ai is “love,” so her name means “love the truth.” My parents, they were Christians in atheist China, that’s where they kind of got their inspiration to love and defend the truth.

When I said that I was going to Western Massachusetts to go to college, a lot of people were concerned, because it’s a pretty secular place. My parents are very involved in ministry, so they also knew how valid those concerns were. But they wanted us to have our beliefs challenged, and that’s how our beliefs are strengthened. They became Christians in college. Obviously, they hope and they pray that we will stick to our faith, but they don’t want it to be the only reason why we believe in the Bible is because that’s how we’re raised. They wanted it to be something that we truly believed. And I really appreciate that, you know? 

As Christians in China, they have experienced what it’s like to have these beliefs that a majority of people don’t hold. I think it really strengthened them. So my parents never discouraged me from coming here. They always wanted my sister and I to get a good liberal arts education.

Education is something that they value, just like their families valued it. They themselves have witnessed what education can do, lifting you from the rural peasant countryside of China to, like my dad, studying to become a chemical engineer. So he has experienced what it’s like to have education bring you out of a social status that’s much lower. They just knew how valuable education is. 

So when I talk about belonging at Amherst, it wouldn’t be possible to separate my faith from that. Because my faith is such a big part of my life, and also my Amherst life. It’s not just attending events or church with these fellow Christians. It’s also studying together, or being in class together or having these normal, everyday, funny, hilarious conversations while we’re eating lunch or something. I hope to contribute within the ACF by getting involved with serving others. Because it’s a community where I feel very loved.

On the experience of being photographed:

At photo shoots, I’ve mostly been the photographer, not the person being photographed. Maria [Stenzel, College photographer] and I knew each other from a class on animation we both took last summer at Harvard. Her work is amazing. And she’s such an easy person to interact with and talk to, that you don’t feel intimidated.

Jonathan’s focus is mostly on portraits and self-portraits. So he was the one who was kind of playing around with getting up close or getting me to turn and use some other angles. Maria was more like the straightforward, “OK, this is the formal shot,” like she was doing a lot of composition. But Jonathan was just focusing on one part of our body. Which is really interesting, to see the different ways that they worked. Because I already knew Maria and had met Jonathan several times, I was very comfortable with them. And then my sister was there as well. Otherwise, it could have felt kind of awkward or unnatural, but I was very comfortable with the people there. And then, at the same time, I was also learning by watching how Maria and Jonathan worked, and did the lighting, you know.