08/09/2013 06:01 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2013

Serve, Inspire, Change

When I heard about the recent Asiana Airlines plane crash, I was devastated. I was even more disgruntled when a Facebook friend of mine shared a link to a Tumblr blog featuring insensitive comments about the event, many of which mocked Asians for being bad drivers- apparently on the road and in air. These stereotype-fueled posts were made by adults and youth alike. While the inherent narrow-mindedness in these comments is disconcerting in itself, I believe it also reveals a larger obstacle -- the populace's tendency to gravitate towards antiquated and insular ideas, and to ignore the change that would make it possible to escape them. As our nation plunges into a new set of pressing problems, it is dismaying to see people of my generation going against the tide of improvement -- especially when we have the capacity not to do so.

Amidst the Asiana Airlines controversy, I had the privilege of traveling to Washington, D.C. for the annual Bank of America Student Leaders Summit, where several socially-conscious youth convene for a week-long retreat. Every year, Bank of America invests time and money into selected students from various markets for a paid internship and leadership conference at our nation's capital. Surrounded by about two hundred of the most passionate and ambitious incoming and graduated high school seniors across the country, I learned about my own leadership potential through daily workshops, and spent much of the week in self-reflection.

One particular activity I enjoyed was watching the hunger documentary, "A Place at the Table." Incidentally, back in California, I had been working with a non-profit organization that focused on hunger known as Second Harvest Food Bank. When Bank of America assigned me to this organization, I was oblivious to the cause it served. For starters, I had no idea what a food bank was, let alone that hunger was an issue in Orange County. I had seen homeless people while driving around town, but the only image of hunger I could conjure in my mind was of a frail, young child from a third world country (a portrait one might find on the internet), which is another major problem as well. I guess this was a personal stereotype that I had developed about the hungry in my county. Rather, I learned, hunger in my county -- and in most other places in America -- is characterized by food insecurity. The documentary accurately captured the lives of government-dependent families struggling to put meals on the table. I learned that that hunger in this country does not necessarily mean people are not fed, but that they are not well-fed or properly fed.

The issue of hunger hits home for me because I was raised by two parents who grew out of systems of economic insecurity in their hometowns in China. Having been born in Orange County, I live a much more privileged life than my parents when they were children -- one that, in comparison to theirs, revolves around much pettier problems. Oftentimes, my dad will tell the story about having his first banana when he finally came to America, and how grateful he is for the food he has now that was so out of reach before. My brother and I have never been fond of his anecdotes; to us, they have only seemed pointless and redundant. In fact, we've been perfectly complacent routinely throwing away our homemade meals to snack on ice cream and chips instead! However, my perspective on hunger experienced a complete backflip this summer. Working with Second Harvest Food Bank exposed me to the issue of hunger on a local scale, while volunteering at the Capital Area Food Bank in D.C. and watching "A Place at the Table" with the other Student Leaders educated me about hunger from a national perspective. Did you know hunger directly affects obesity and hinders learning as well? I had never thought of it before, but the association between these global concerns makes perfect sense.

Bank of America even surprised us by introducing Barbie Izquierdo, one of the main characters of the film, as a guest speaker. I was touched by her welcoming personality and willingness to share about her personal struggles providing food for her two children. For the first time, I met other students who had been facing the same struggles as Barbie. Though I wish I had been educated about hunger earlier in life, I am attempting to make the best of my time back at work to serve, and to educate about, the hungry in my community. I don't think the people who made the inappropriate remarks about social issues on the blog my friend linked are necessarily bad people, but simply uneducated about certain real world issues, like I was about hunger. As I chanced upon myself, the great part is that it's never too late to learn.

It would be an understatement to simply say that I was impacted by the experiences I made during my trip. The theme of the conference was, "Serve, Inspire and Change," and though I was ready to serve, inspire, and change others, I found myself being served, inspired, and changed by the people I met.