Bettering communities through economic studies

“Mount Holyoke taught me that there isn’t one right way to be a student or live your life. My classmates weren’t my competition. They were my support system. This allowed me to reflect on what I want.”

Growing up on the bustling streets of Beijing, China, Sijia Feng came to Mount Holyoke in search of a slower pace of life and an opportunity to be around a diverse community of people from whom she could learn and who would push her out of her comfort zone. Four years later she’s gained that, and then some.

“Beijing is a huge city, and I grew up with the expectation that I’d study and do well in school so that I could make a lot of money,” she said. “Even as I entered Mount Holyoke, it was difficult for me to focus on having fun and trying new things.”

Her first year coincided with the height of the pandemic, so she decided to take a gap semester and then complete her courses virtually for the following semester, missing much of the new connections she was longing for. She leaned into what served her well in high school, connecting with students who were like her and placing a lot of focus on grades.

“My first year, I was so cliquey. I wasn’t willing to step outside my comfort zone with Chinese students at all. I wouldn’t even try a challenging class,” she said. “Then I met a friend who introduced me to her friends, and that’s how I began to have friends from America and other countries. It opened up a whole new world for me.”

By her second year, Feng had chosen to major in economics, something that was somewhat expected of her, and film, something that she loved since she was young. Her film studies took her to Nantucket for a semester, where she worked on the set of the indie film “Lost Nation,” set in New England during the American Revolution. The story follows Vermont founding father Ethan Allen and his fight for the state of Vermont and an African-born Vermonter, Lucy Prince, who wrote the first known work of African American literature and her fight to save her family and property. Feng admits that she didn’t enjoy her time on set when seeing unfairness and inequality occur but was proud to try something new and appreciative of how much she learned about herself and the film industry.

“The program taught me a lot, especially how patriarchal other environments can be,” she said of the semester-long opportunity. “It was a reminder that not everywhere is like Mount Holyoke. Our professors work really hard to create a safe and encouraging environment, and that makes all the difference.”

Once Feng accepted that loving something didn’t mean it had to be prioritized, or her sole career focus, she leaned into her economic classes. One of the classes that left a big impression on her was Political Inequality in America, taught by Lucas Wilson. Before this class, Feng said she thought economics was about how to make it to Wall Street and secure as much money as possible for your clients.

“[Wilson’s class] taught me that economics is more about the macro changes, how social and human resources are allocated for better livelihood,” she said. “It’s about coming up with solutions for the inequalities we’re seeing in the world, like how to assign resources to different people. I enjoyed the laid-back nature of the class and how approachable the material was. I’d never taken a class like that before.”

In addition to courses she took to complete her major requirements, she looked for courses and campus opportunities she never had when studying in Beijing. She studied music with Ben Geyer; enrolled in an outdoor activities class through the Five College Consortium, where she was able to hike, ski and row and studied abroad in Denmark to challenge herself and to become more open-minded.

“Denmark changed me. I saw Nordic countries as cold and boring before, but I realized it’s more about how the people live their lives,” she said. “I found the Danish to be so chill. They seemed to live life more slowly. They have space to fail and try other things. I found this appealing.”

It’s that sense of slowness that she’s determined to keep as she graduates. While Feng is open to attending a graduate program in the future, she’s focused on looking for jobs that will allow her to make a difference. She’s especially drawn to nongovernmental organizations that will allow her to use her background in economics for the betterment of communities.

“Mount Holyoke taught me that there isn’t one right way to be a student or live your life,” she said. “My classmates weren’t my competition. They were my support system. This allowed me to reflect on what I want and gave me the opportunity to find peace while still studying towards my degree.”

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