In March of 2014, East Brunswick, New Jersey, high school senior Sophie Chang and her mother arose early to make an eight-and-a-half hour drive to Ohio for one main purpose: so Chang could interview over three days for a prestigious eminence fellowship scholarship at Ohio State.
While the interview proved unsuccessful, the trip did convince her that Ohio State — which she had at one time placed at No. 17 on a list of 18 possible schools to attend — was where she wanted to spend her next four years.
Almost exactly three years later, Chang — a first-generation college student — was elected Undergraduate Student Government vice president with one of her closest friends since freshman year, Andrew Jackson, by her side as president.
Jackson, a fourth-year in political science and Spanish, and Chang, a fourth-year in environment, economy, development and sustainability, were sworn in April 4. Their election to the executive roles in USG is of particular significance due to the minority communities to which they each belong: Jackson is an openly gay man — only the second Ohio State USG president known to identify as such — while Chang, whose parents are Taiwanese, is an Asian-American woman.
Yes, I think about the fact that I’m an Asian-American female and that’s part of my identity, but that’s not something I think about every time I’m dealing with an issue. – Sophie Chang
The more diverse leadership puts a cap on a year which saw USG’s diversity profile improve over previous years, according to its internal demographic report, which tracks representation of different groups within USG compared to the student body it represents.
Jackson and Chang never made their identities a campaign cornerstone, but they both feel a responsibility to represent their respective minority communities.
Jackson said having an openly gay man as USG is positive, especially for incoming LGTBQ students.
“And even my friends that are part of the community say, ‘Oh, we’re so happy that there’s one of us that’s in the office, that’s finally in office,’” he said.
While Chang said giving a voice to Asian-Americans who may feel they lack public representation is part of her job, she said she wants to be clear that she represents all students regardless of background and that her own ethnicity shouldn’t factor into every decision she makes.
“It is my job to represent 53,000 students, but I don’t think that I represent every single Asian-American voice,” she said. “Yes, I think about the fact that I’m an Asian-American female and that’s part of my identity, but that’s not something I think about every time I’m dealing with an issue. Because not everything is about privilege and your identity.”
Life before college
At a glance, Jackson and Chang’s upbringings are marked by striking similarities: both as fifth-graders had their parents divorce, both were raised by their mothers with maternal grandparents as major figures in their upbringings and neither has maintained contact with their respective father.
With a closer look, however, their stories diverge drastically.
Jackson was born in Virginia but moved to his grandparents’ family farm in Mount Gilead, Ohio, with his mother and older sister when he was 5 years old. There, he learned to raise livestock — primarily poultry, rabbits, swine and cattle — joined the 4-H Club, of which he remained a member for a decade, and called the community home until he left for Ohio State in 2014.
Political engagement ran through the family, with his grandmother being a Morrow County Clerk of Courts and his grandfather and stepfather each serving as township trustees.
While Jackson said his own household on the farm was quite liberal, the Mount Gilead community and that of Highland — his high school, in the neighboring village of Marengo — was staunchly conservative, something he increasingly felt the weight of as he began to realize he was attracted to men.
Dealing with that attraction to the same sex, he said, involved trying to “hold onto some kind of normalcy to like girls, or women,” before coming out during his senior year of high school.
After coming out, he said while it was easier for him to talk with his friends, he often caught others whispering and staring at him in hallways, and sometimes feared getting beaten up.
While he was never harmed physically, Jackson said he does recall verbal abuse.
“I do remember one day I was running on my road … and there was a truck that was coming towards (me), but I didn’t really think anything about it because we (saw) trucks all the time,” he said. “Somebody that I was in high school with just yelled out the window ‘faggot’ at me as I was running.”
That word was something he said he’d become numb to, but he does remember the incident clearly years later and said he worries that other young men in his shoes might not possess his thick skin.
In contrast to Jackson’s one home, which increasingly felt different to him as he discovered himself, Chang’s home physically changed often.
“We moved 21 times, total, from when I was little,” she said.
The oldest of three siblings, Chang has fond childhood memories of countless hours spent in the Ocean City, New Jersey, restaurant her maternal grandparents owned and operated. Some of the moves were big though, including two separate moves from the U.S. to Taiwan, as well as brief moves to Indonesia and Hong Kong in the ‘90s when tensions were high between China and Taiwan.
Chang’s second move to Taiwan — the first which she has memories of — resulted in one of the hardest study sessions she has experienced in her life: though fully fluent in speaking Mandarin, she had never written it, and entered Taiwanese fourth grade expected to know how to write thousands of alphabet characters, an expectation she was able to mostly meet.
“I don’t know (how), but I did it, I somehow did it,” she said.
Still, she struggled with math homework, sometimes even crying while trying to decipher word problems.
“I would know how to do the math because it was math that I knew how to do already, but I just didn’t know how to read the word problems,” Chang said. “So, I would be up until midnight doing homework.”
The days in Taiwan were grueling, with class running from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m., with gymnastics lessons afterwards.
Still, Chang shone academically, achieving all A’s through school with a small handful of B’s, though she said she was never really pressured by her family.
“I think it was an expectation I just set for myself,” she said. “I just didn’t like not getting A’s.”
Once back in New Jersey for middle school and high school, Chang took up sports, ultimately playing eight, and began a lifelong love of reading, though it often limited her social interactions outside of school.
“When I was little, I preferred to not hang out with people my age and I just preferred to read,” she said. “So when I was in high school, I just did homework a lot. I would hang out with some of my friends, but honestly most of my hang-out time came during school and lunch time and whatever.”
All this reading and focus on academics would serve her well, resulting in her graduating in the top 3 percent of her class and scoring well enough on the ACT exam to earn the interest of scholarship programs like the eminence fellowship which, while not selected for, led to the experience that brought her to Ohio State.
Flourishing in college
Jackson and Chang are both similar in two facets of college life: involvement in all the university has to offer, and in building as many relationships with their fellow students as they can. As part of that involvement, they both joined USG freshman year and met each other while running on the same slate.
“He’s super passionate about helping people,” said Matt Stark, fourth-year in accounting and Jackson’s “Little” — meaning Jackson’s mentee in Greek life — in their fraternity Alpha Kappa Lambda. “He’s the kind of person who will make sure that the absolute best is happening for everyone. He’s very protective and caring.”
Students close to Chang said her greatest asset she will bring to her role as vice president is her strong connections to others and her focus.
“Her best quality is definitely loyalty, and not to just people, but also to causes,” said her friend Molly Duncan, a fourth-year in biology and French. “And so when she sets her mind to see a task through, she locks onto it, she sees it through to its completion. And so if there’s a cause that she believes in, you can be sure that she’s going to see it through to the best of her ability.”
As long-term USG members, Jackson and Chang each have considerable lists of accomplishments, but each points to the EndHateOSU campaign as a point of pride. The campaign was designed to counter stereotypes and end the use of slurs and other unkind behavior toward minority students.
The Jackson-Chang agenda
Jackson and Chang campaigned on the three bullet points of affordability, sustainability and inclusion, and as the 2017-18 academic year nears, those remain their priorities, they said.
We will do our best to make sure that the students feel most comfortable using the bathrooms that they desire and living with who they want to. – Andrew Jackson
Chang said increasing transparency of where campus food is sourced from is important in promoting sustainability due to the size of the student body.
Jackson said he wants to continue the previous USG administration’s work to make textbooks more affordable, noting that an open-source e-book program is piloting in a small handful of classes fall semester.
He also said strengthening relationships between USG and student organizations was a top priority in the inclusion category.
Chang said another inclusion priority is honoring student requests to have some bathrooms in a handful of residence halls be marked as gender neutral, a change she and Jackson are aware might be controversial with some parents.
“At the end of the day, Sophie and I are not accountable to the parents, we’re accountable to the students and what the students want and need,” Jackson said. “And so we will do our best to make sure that the students feel most comfortable using the bathrooms that they desire and living with who they want to.”