DOVER — She has founded her own nonprofit, taught Chinese to fellow students, helped orphans in her native China, met Gov. Rick Scott and currently serves as the editor in chief of her school newspaper.
At 17, Meng Fei Shen is taking on the world in a big way, but the Riverview resident also has learned that challenges also lie right here in Hillsborough County.
The Robinson High International Baccalaureate Programme senior was selected by a committee of community business leaders as a 2014 Bank of America Student Leader, an honor given to just five teens locally and 220 students across the nation. With the distinction came an eight-week paid internship with the Boys & Girls Club and a one-week conference in Washington, D.C.
Meng Fei recently completed her internship with the Boys & Girls Club of Dover, where she worked with a number of low-income and migrant children.
"My favorite thing Meng Fei said is the fact that this experience has woken her up to see that there is not only global poverty, but poverty just down the street," said Ann Shaler, Tampa Bay market manager and senior vice president for Bank of America. "She recognizes the balance between her big passion for culture and life and staying connected to her community."
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While the experience gave Meng Fei a new perspective on the needs of those close to home, it was only one such experience on a resume that reveals a compassionate character that is uniquely inspiring.
In 2011, Meng Fei founded a nonprofit organization called Pandeagle Cultural Institute after spending two months volunteering at an orphanage in her native Nanjing, China. During her stay, Meng Fei worked with Chinese children known as "leftovers," children abandoned by their families because they were physically disabled, female, beyond the ideal adoption age or any number of other reasons.
"It's scary to think they won't have families," said Meng Fei, who tutored the children in English and math, but quickly recognized an even greater need. "I hope I gave them a better understanding of the U.S. They think the U.S. is all McDonald's and Burger King. I want to eliminate cultural stereotypes."
A few years prior, she took on the task of helping her fellow seventh-graders when she founded a club to teach them the language after school, a precursor to the institute.
"I think you should take advantage of your background. Knowing Chinese is a huge advantage in the 21st century," Meng Fei said. "Once you enter the career fields, you'll realize how important it is."
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Pandeagle is a nonprofit organization that teaches the Chinese language and culture, and provides members with Chinese mentors within the community, while raising awareness and funds for impoverished children in China. In the next year, she and her club hope to raise enough money to go to China to experience the culture and volunteer with the children they are helping to support.
It has a high probability of happening, judging by Meng Fei's track record so far. She has seen Pandeagle grow and expand through her relentless efforts. The institute has five officers and three board members. Meng Fei has raised interest as far away as Wisconsin, and conducted informal surveys and recruiting efforts among the other Bank of America Student Leaders during their trip to the nation's capital. Pandeagle will offer online classes for teaching Chinese, with cultural elements like making dumplings, playing Chinese chess and Chinese paper cutting, to reach members nationwide.
Meng Fei has even partnered with several area nursing homes to allow Pandeagle to present programs such as tai chi, calligraphy and cooking.
"In the end, we are not an organization that merely teaches Chinese, but brings together an awareness of culture and people," Meng Fei said. "It seems absurd that you can have two politicians from two different countries sitting beside one another and they can't communicate. There is a lot of conflict in the world because there's not a good understanding of other cultures. My hope is to eradicate misunderstanding."
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To further understand Meng Fei's desire to reach more people of all ages in the name of promoting cultural awareness and acceptance, it is necessary to understand her own journey.
Born in China, Meng Fei immigrated to the United States with her parents, arriving in New York five days before Sept. 11, 2001. Out of what could reasonably have been a troubled few years for a young Chinese girl in a new country rose a stubbornly independent girl.
While her parents have never really learned to speak English, Meng Fei has mastered both languages, initially in order to communicate with doctors, lawyers, government officials and school representatives. She even taught herself to translate written Chinese through pinyin, a phonetic system for transcribing the pronunciation of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet.
She has helped her parents complete income tax forms, championed her sister's quest to enter a school magnet program even without a transcript from her Chinese school, and called for answers to questions about the monthly bills. In ninth grade, she completed immigration paperwork for other relatives, which meant attending a lot of free consultations with lawyers, and eventually having to hire a Chinese lawyer stateside. She has wended her way through the college testing and application processes and is now waiting to hear from her dream school, which she did not want to share until she heard something official. (She did say it is out of state.)
So founding a nonprofit was a challenge she tackled head on.
"I have developed a thick skin," Meng Fei said. "Having these two parts of my life have significantly shaped who I am today. I strongly believe that Pandeagle can bridge the gap between the American culture and other cultures."
Contact Shannan D. Powell at [email protected]