By Claretta Bellamy
Michelle Chan (ΦBK, Columbia University) has officially become part of the Phi Beta Kappa family. On January 24, Chan was inducted into the Society at Columbia University, being amongst the few selected and recognized as top students of the senior class. The 21-year-old biology major will be graduating this year, with her induction being one of the many accomplishments she has achieved thus far.
“It feels very rewarding, and more importantly, it feels very humbling to see that the effort that I put into my work has been recognized,” says Chan. “That only further motivates me to keep pursuing my passions and to keep chasing after my dreams, because I think that is the only way that I’ll be able to turn them into reality.”
Growing up in Brooklyn, Chan was raised by immigrant parents from Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, China. She discovered her future career interests early on in middle school when her grandfather began battling cancer. Despite knowing little about science or medicine, Chan began taking an interest in radiation oncology while attending Hunter College High School, and she became a student researcher. By the time she arrived at Columbia University, Chan knew her passion was in the medical field and wanted to have a career where she could help others going through the same difficult situation she had experienced from her grandfather’s illness.
“Seeing him go through the amount of pain and suffering that he went through, really motivated me to say, ‘I need to do something to help others and prevent them from going through that same kind of pain,’” says Chan. “That made me really want to pursue medicine, and the best way I could do that was by going to college, getting my degree, and then applying to medical school.”
It was also during her time in high school when Chan took an interest in volunteering. One of Chan’s biggest role models was her science teacher, Asumana Randolph, a Liberian native who founded the I-HELP Liberia Project in 1994. According to Chan, the main goal of the organization is to improve STEM education for Liberian students who typically don’t have access to the same kind of resources that students have in the United States.
Soon after connecting with Randolph, Chan, who was looking for opportunities to give back, decided to get involved with I-HELP Liberia Project. In 2015, Chan traveled with a group of students to Liberia for three weeks. During her stay, she visited high schools to implement science bowl tournaments while also giving educational workshops for teachers. Besides academic excellence, she also believes acts of community service are a fundamental characteristic that makes a true ΦBK scholar.
Michelle Chan (center) with her mother (Lay Chan), her father (Jackson Chan), and the Dean of Columbia College (James J. Valentini) at her ΦBK induction.
“Being a ΦBK member means much more than just academics. It means upholding our responsibility to give back to the people around us, and to give back to those in need and to do our part to make this world a better place, and I think that’s what really defines a ΦBK scholar.”
Today, Chan is currently the director of the I-HELP Liberia Project Medical Scholars Program, which sponsors students who have demonstrated their academic potential and provides them with the funding they need to obtain a medical degree.
“Right now what I’m focused on is allowing Liberian medical students to get the medical education that they need,” says Chan.
Chan also gives back locally by volunteering at health fairs throughout New York City. In terms of a career, she is still undecided but is leaning towards becoming a surgeon. In her spare time, she enjoys swimming, baking, and playing the ukulele. In addition to her hobbies, Chan also appreciates receiving a liberal arts and sciences education because of the different ways it allows her to see the world.
“I think it’s important to receive a liberal arts education because it really gives you a different perspective on the world,” says Chan. “You’re not only looking at the world through a single lens, but you’re able to see it from many different angles, which I think is extremely important when it comes to making decisions or helping those around you. I think when you’re able to step into someone else’s shoes, having those two different perspectives is very important to be able to do that.”
Claretta Bellamy earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism at Rutgers University, where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in 2019. Rutgers University is home to the Alpha of New Jersey chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.