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Being so Good

Vanessa Chien Lai (BSBA’19) is new to Boston, not to giving back

In high school in Taiwan, Vanessa Chien Lai did a lot of volunteering—little of it voluntary. Public service projects required by her school included cleaning other schools and sorting through donations at a healthcare center.

Like many first-year students, Chien Lai (BSBA’19) experienced a sudden freedom when she came to BU in 2015, and she found that giving back was even more appealing when it was her idea. When Chien Lai wasn’t studying, she and her friend Natalie Chai (SHA’19) began buying food for people on Comm Ave who were homeless.

“We would go to Star Market and pass people sheltering in recesses among the buildings,” she says. “At first, it’s kind of awkward, coming up to this person and saying, ‘Do you want help?’ It can come off as rude, maybe. But they really appreciate it.”

She liked “volunteering voluntarily,” she says. “The whole country was new to me. I got to decide what I cared about, how I spent my time.”

She joined Habitat for Humanity, where she and Chai became BU chapter copresidents in 2017 and went on build trips to create new homes for families around New England. She led groups of Habitat members in helping out at the CommonCare community kitchen in Cambridge, Mass., and packaging Christmas gifts of toiletries and socks for the homeless in Boston’s Back Bay. Chien Lai also volunteers for the Questrom LOCK Honorary Service Society, tutoring other students in statistics.

A self-taught graphic designer hoping for a career in marketing—she interned at Bose in summer 2018—Chien Lai is also a calligrapher (Instagram: @letterwithvanessa). She’s a defiant “leftie” in a field that favors righties—most tools are designed for the right-handed—selling products such as mugs and phone cases with her artwork (the shirt she’s wearing is one of her own). As one of her recent calligraphy pieces puts it, “Great things never came from comfort zones.”