Asian-American alum stands out on own terms
by Amanda Chalifoux
Jerry Tsai doesn't look like he belongs in a wrestling ring. But weighing in at a little more than 100 pounds in high school, that is exactly where he found himself.
A wrestling coach asked if he wanted to fill in for the last two weeks of the season. "My parents were against the idea; they thought I'd get hurt because I'm a small guy and had no training in wrestling," he says. "But they let me."
Tsai, A&S '08, has always been open to taking a different path. He says his parents' unwavering support has helped shape his bold, passionate outlook on life. "It allowed me to try new things and flourish, and be open to failure to some extent, by trying something I might not otherwise try."
That confidence is part of the reason Jerry stands out -- something he got used to at UC for other reasons, too. "There weren't too many 5-foot-4 Asian guys walking around campus," he laughs.
Tsai's appearance, however, isn't the only thing that draws attention. The former University of Cincinnati student body president tends to make a name for himself wherever he goes, from his high school in Marysville, Ohio, to his accomplished student career at UC and now in the elementary classrooms of Las Vegas.
He is part of the Teach for America program, which enables successful college graduates with little to no education training to teach in low-income school districts across the country. After just five weeks of rigorous training, participants are placed in a classroom for two years.
"I chose to do this program because of the opportunity to make a difference, to give back," Tsai says. "I like to say that my goal is not to teach them how to read, write, do arithmetic.
"My job as a teacher is to help them learn how to be good students, functioning members of society and good people -- to do the right things. If I teach them that, the reading, writing and math will come along."
Tsai's journey to UC and later a Nevada classroom began with his parents, who are from Taiwan. They moved to the United States in the late '70s to pursue graduate studies and never left.
"Good or bad, I never felt I was singled out because I was Asian-American," he says. "It probably helped with regard to people identifying me. I always felt I had the same opportunities as everyone else."
Identifying Tsai was always easy for another reason, too: He was everywhere. In high school, he admits to being "over-involved," participating in sports, marching band, show choir, student council and other activities.
"It's funny because when I left high school, I said that when I go to college, I'm not going to get that involved because I did too much in high school," Tsai says. "I was going to take it easy and focus on academics. That lasted about a quarter."
His freshman year, a friend talked him into signing up to be involved in student government. "I started picking up this group and that group. It was a snowball effect after that."
And as the political science grad's roles expanded, his face became more familiar throughout the university.
"In the glory days," Tsai says with a smile, "I couldn't walk through campus without saying hi to someone or someone saying hello back. You can make a big campus really small just by being social."
Tsai says there were many times during his five-year college career that he felt like the "big man" on campus, but that wasn't what he was after. "You don't strive to do that. That's not the end goal by any means. That just happens if you do things for the right reasons.
"I didn't join student groups for selfish reasons, but to really try to impact campus life for students," he says. "You do it in an intrinsic way to serve."
That inherent desire to work for the greater good led Tsai to Wengert Elementary in Las Vegas, where the diverse student body is approximately 50 percent Hispanic. He believes in improving the place in which he finds himself, wherever that may be.
"Even if your world is your family, you should try to make it better. I think that's the right thing to do. Otherwise, you have no purpose."
Tsai's world is likely to become much larger in the future. The 24-year-old has plans to go to law school and eventually pursue a career in politics or public service. Wherever he goes, he certainly will get noticed for making a difference -- and love every minute of it.
"When you do something you love, it doesn't feel like work. It's just livin' life."
Jerry Tsai served as student body president from 2006-07. He is also a former UC Homecoming king and president of Sigma Sigma, the UC honorary that recognizes students who have made significant contributions to the university. He worked closely with university leaders on important campus issues, including the deal between Cincinnati's Metro bus system and UC to allow students, faculty and staff to ride for discounted rates. He received a Cincinnatus Scholarship as an incoming freshman. At UC's Spring 2008 Commencement, Tsai was the student orator, received the Presidential Leadership Medal of Excellence and was a student marshal for the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences.