Sonia Chen helps Asian-American immigrants adjust to life in their new world
Sonia Chen is a musician, attorney and longtime advocate for Asian Americans. Her schedule is crammed with meetings and responsibilities. With an instant smile, she quickly answers that her life is all about living her passions.
Discovering her interests and enacting whatever she loves is a life lesson Chen learned early on.
When her parents made a life-changing decision more than 30 years ago to emigrate from Taiwan to America, Chen was too young to fathom what types of sacrifices they were willing to make and all the challenges they faced to pursue that goal. Waiting for a visa required several years. Beginning a new life in an entirely different country with different languages and different cultures was an amazing task that Chen did not fully understand until she was older.
Though her parents faced many trying times, they persevered.
“They sold everything they had so they could come here,” Chen says quietly of her parents. “That was 33 years ago.”
Now, as board president of the Asian American Alliance of Indiana, Chen advocates for residents with a background similar to hers.
Fish out of water
The Chen family’s destination was Kansas, the center of the United States, where the young family knew absolutely no one. Chen’s father studied law and became an attorney. Her mother, who had previously taught music at the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan, offered private piano lessons at home once the family had settled in America.
Naturally musical herself, Chen learned very early to play piano. She then promptly fell in love with the violin. She was the kind of little girl who happily took on a leadership role at school, especially if it was music related.
“My mom says I liked to lead the school songs,” Chen says with a laugh.
By the time she and her sister Wendy were elementary school students, an American-born brother, Steve, rounded out the family, and they ventured from Kansas to Carmel.
By that time, Chen’s father was very successful in international trade law. He happily accepted a new job as a representative for the Asian trade business in a new state.
Again, family strength guided the Chen’s to relocate, seek out new friendships and build what would be their longtime identity as Hoosiers.
Once the transition to a new community was complete for the family, Chen’s mother was again very successful in her own business. She attracted excited piano students and resumed teaching in their new home.
Along the way, Chen watched intently and proudly as her parents faced so many challenges and carved out successful careers for themselves. They were committed to finding opportunities for their children and meaningful community relationships and activities for themselves. Passion was what strengthened her parents, Chen says. From the moment they so courageously immigrated to America with two little daughters in tow to the professional choices they made based on their talents and skills.
Long before she graduated from Carmel High School, Chen knew a lot about what she loved. She loved the symphony, for example. She loved challenges. After graduating from high school, she enrolled at Vanderbilt University to study violin musical arts and human organizational development.
However, she was not the only child in the family who paid attention to the importance of pursuing a life passion.
Chen’s siblings also reached for successful futures.
Wendy is finishing her residency in ophthalmology at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Steve graduated from Vanderbilt, works in cardiovascular marketing at IU Health and is completing his MBA at Indiana University.
Chen attributes her wonderful academic success simply to the fact that she studied something she already knew she loved –– music.
Her second decision of young adulthood was to tap into a second love. So she moved to Bloomington and enrolled at Indiana University School of Law. Keeping true to her roots, Chen proudly served an internship in Taiwan and graduated in 2001.
“And now I am an attorney,” she says with a smile. “My parents both influenced me.”
Reaching out in the community
Her career began as a law clerk at the Indiana Court of Appeals. Nearly two years later, Chen went to work at Stewart & Irwin, P.C.
Still fully attuned to all that makes her heart beat, she continued to pursue community involvement, especially with families whose American beginnings were similar to her own. As a result of her commitment, Chen was chosen in 2006 to be the master of ceremonies for the Taiwanese American Heritage Celebration.
Three years later, still making time in her schedule to advocate for Asian Americans, she accepted a position in business litigation at Bingham McHale LLP.
Her passion for practicing law was immediately noted. In 2009, 2010 and 2011, Indiana Super Lawyers recognized Chen as a “Rising Star.” She was also one of 25 young professionals invited to participate in the XXXIII Stanley K. Lacy Executive Leadership Series. Sponsored by the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, the Lacy program educates leaders about challenges across central Indiana.
Along with that ever-growing list of impressive accolades, Chen continues to prove that she never steers completely in one direction.
Hers is a familiar, friendly face, for example, at the immigration office. Serving as a representative of the Indianapolis Bar Association, Chen is frequently present during naturalization ceremonies to welcome new citizens of the United States. It is important to Chen that she makes an effort to reach out, to honor and to celebrate Asian Americans and their dreams.
Nurturing that musical side of her personality, Chen became a volunteer 10 years ago at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. It wasn’t such a glamorous beginning, she said with a grin. She initially worked as an usher. Now she serves on the board for this organization, which launched in 1982 and hosts competitions every four years, inviting young classical violinists from around the globe to compete.
Though she enjoyed five years of litigation experience with Bingham McHale, Chen says she began to notice that what she also enjoyed was spending more consistent time with clients.
“By building a relationship with them, I could really understand their goals,” she says. “I wanted to help a business achieve those end results.”
Six months ago, she accepted a position as counsel in therapeutic areas at Eli Lilly and Co. Her smile brightens as she speaks of the professional decision that better suits her personal interests.
Along with dabbling in a few fun interests such as golf (“though I’m not very good at it”) and running (including mini marathons and the Chicago Marathon five years ago), Chen commits energy to several different fundraisers, such as the American Cancer Society’s Coaches’ Huddle and Teb’s Troops, a nonprofit organization formed in 2003 in memory of a law school classmate, Tricia E. Black, who died from melanoma. Teb’s Troops is a grassroots effort to raise money for the Melanoma Research Foundation, Chen explains.
One of her proudest passions is serving as board president of the Asian American Alliance of Indianapolis, an organization that started in 1999 with 25 members.
“I really believe in its mission to lead and serve Asian Americans in business and the community,” Chen says of the alliance, which now boasts more than 500 members.
When she joined AAAI, she met Young Hee Yedinak, senior producer of community affairs at WTHR-TV and communications/marketing chair for AAAI. The women realized they had similar beginnings.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Yedinak lived in Vietnam and Indonesia as a preteen and teen while her father worked as a diplomat and tourism development official for the Korean government.
“Three decades ago, we immigrated to the U.S.,” Yedinak says. “As a new naturalized U.S. citizen, I was consumed with learning to adapt to the new environment and blending in, sometimes, I have to admit, at the expense of what made me distinct: my perspectives and experiences.”
Her involvement with AAAI helped her “reclaim –– and celebrate –– my multidimensional identity of being a Korean-American immigrant,” Yedinak says. “I have met people with experiences similar to mine, who enjoy enormous success in the corporate world. I have also met those who are new to this country, struggling with the language, cultural and other social barriers that many immigrants face. All of this has compelled me to give back and to help whenever and wherever I can to make our community a welcoming place for all.”
According to a report released this year by the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice, the last census reveals Indiana’s Asian-American population has increased 74 percent from 2000 to 2010. Now more than ever, Chen’s passion for the organization is not only important but necessary and appreciated.
“She is intelligent, tough, focused and driven,” Yedinak says of Chen. “But there is a softer, sweet side too. Maybe that’s what makes her such an effective advocate for AAAI and the other community projects she is involved in. Sonia can talk diverse groups of people into working with her and with each other. And she does it with such disarming charm that people can’t help but like her.”
As an example of Chen’s ability, Yedinak mentions an AAAI Town Hall event.
“This event was a vision that Sonia and a small group of Asian community leaders had earlier this year, but ultimately it was Sonia who took charge and pulled it off,” Yedinak says. “But she made sure that every person and organization who played a role in it, no matter how small, was clearly acknowledged in public. She might be tiny but she is mighty.”
Keeping her connections
Finding ways to honor all your passions isn’t so easy, though.
“When you are in a leadership position, you want to make sure everything goes right,” Chen says. “But you can’t do everything.”
She is still learning how to delegate, Chen confesses. It doesn’t come naturally to her, however. Her nature is to launch and develop a project and see it through to completion.
She learns valuable lessons by delegating and is always pleased with the results.
“People rise to the occasion. They will meet your challenges,” Chen says with a smile.
Many relatives still reside in Taiwan, and the family makes time to visit. But more often, family members prefer to travel from Taiwan to the United States, Chen says.
“We stay connected to our culture,” she says. “It is a part of our everyday lives.”
At home, her parents frequently speak either Mandarin Chinese or Taiwanese, and their daughter often responds in English.
“Sometimes, however, the only way you can describe something is using a colloquial expression, so I may throw one in as I’m talking every once in a while.”
Whether a person is first-generation or second-generation Asian American, staying connected to the culture helps develop a better understanding of personal strengths and weaknesses, Chen advocates.
“Understanding and accepting those strengths and weaknesses helps you to grow personally and professionally.”