Professor Spotlight: Professor Seo-Young Chu

6 mins read

TRIGGER WARNING: Includes mentions of suicide, rape, and sexual harassment.

Professor Seo-Young Chu stands in the collective spotlight of the English Department, where the dedication to student success and growth is valued. What sets Professor Chu apart is her teaching philosophy which seamlessly aligns with her trials and tribulations as a student and human — a relentless desire to fix the broken aspects of the world.

In recent times, Professor Chu has found a way to help students find the bridge between their wellness and learning, thus normalizing failure, by using her experiences where hardships have served as critical points for her personal growth.

Professor Chu is a Korean-American woman, with both of her parents being impacted by the Korean War — her mother was born during the war, while her father was orphaned by the war.

The concepts of struggle and growth have always been something she has grappled with. Like many immigrant children, she explained that she understood the magnitude those sacrifices held, so she worked tirelessly.

“I worked hard, too hard — often at the cost of my well-being. I believed — and I was wrong to believe this — that being successful meant pulling all-nighters, studying even while physically sick, stressing myself out to the point of collapse,” she said.

The young Yale University student experienced this tolling collapse, but was eager to make her parents proud. She furthered her studies at Stanford University working on her PhD in English. It was here she experienced a huge life-changing incident. Professor Chu explained that she had attempted to take her own life, and was sexually harassed by a professor who was described as “tenured” and “powerful.”

The young 22 year old was left in ruins from the brutality of rape inflicted by her professor. She expressed that Stanford executed an investigation, only to suspend the professor for two years without pay. Tragically, her abuser had taken advantage of other female graduate students, another unbearable pain to fathom.

This horrific event pushed Professor Chu to change her name from “Jennie” to “Seo-Young,” and she had switched her field from early American literature to science fiction. She ended up transferring to Harvard University to finish that PhD, but the injustice heavily weighed on her.

Her abuser continued to gain recognition at Stanford, however, Professor Chu found her voice in 2016 after her tenure at Queens College and she spoke out for the first time against this professor.

She was tasked with the fight of having his name removed from a library commemoration and mentorship awards; and it was revealed Stanford had covered up this incident. Though the traumatic event placed Professor Chu in grueling turmoil, it also provided her with an opportunity to challenge infrastructures around.

As a result, Professor Chu emerged as a devoted #MeTooAcademia advocate for survivors and students alike. Her works include: “I, Discomfort Woman: A Fugue in F Minor” (The Margins, Asian American Writers’ Workshop), “Free Indirect Suicide: An Unfinished Fugue In H Minor” (The Rumpus), and more which have been listed among “Notable Essays and Literacy Nonfiction” in “The Best American Essays 2020” and other noteworthy places.

Currently, she is working on an anti-Asian violence project. Adding on, Professor Chu ardently supports CUNY students’ right to resources and privileges which are usually denoted to the “Ivy League” institutions. She is an active member of the PSC CUNY union, which reflects her desire to the #FundCUNY project. She staunchly advocates for equity for CUNY students.

Though an accomplished woman, Professor Chu underscores student well-being over solely achievement in both her classroom and her work. She often reflects on her experience as a student, using this as a beacon in her courses as the stress students undergo is undervalued in the midst of earning their degrees. Her reflection proved to be a testament of how stress culture can harm student development; the inner voice students have is something she believes needs to be nourished for betterment.

Professor Seo-Young Chu embodies the unique spirit of learning to empower students. She continues to push for not only academic excellence but for students to reevaluate priorities in education and society — to discover that success embodies not only achievements but the concrete cultivation of one’s wellness and empathy in this changing world.

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