Honestly, if you asked me as a Duke freshman what I thought I would be doing in five years, I could not have imagined the life I live today. My life right now consists of photographing people who are in love; getting paid to travel; and having freedom and control over my own time. I am a full-time wedding photographer with my own photography and videography businesses, and I am beyond lucky to live this life that I love.
In hindsight, I can trace it all back to those formative moments in college when I hopped off my pre-med track and decided instead to design my own major in documentary studies and Asian American studies in Program II. It was then that I learned two important lessons: the first about creating yet unimagined futures, and the second about utilizing and leveraging your resources.
Entering Duke as a freshman, I was academically strong, ambitious, pre-med—in other words, typical. What ended up setting me apart was my determination to take as many interesting courses as possible, regardless of their ability to help me graduate or look good to future employers. I took everything from cell biology to economics to cultural anthropology. But as the diversity of my class schedule grew, my commitment to the pre-med track quickly began to fade.
Of all things, organic chemistry became the pivot point. Sophomore year rolled around, and I knew I had to make a decision about my major and my future plans. I could not fathom spending hours in a lab (and subsequent years upon years in school and training) if becoming a doctor wasn't something I was passionate about. So rather than choose a career path or climb a ladder of success, I decided to structure a different lifestyle for myself. It was an audacious move accompanied by a fear of failure.
Of all the courses I had taken, my thoughts and academic pursuits kept returning to one—a documentary-studies course taught by two graduate students, “Re-Framing Asian America.” As our final project, we each created documentary-photography projects on topics of our choosing. Out of sheer curiosity, I pursued the question, “Why are there so many Asian-American Christians?” I interviewed people and sat in on church services and Bible studies. At one point, I even found myself photographing a group of Asian American college students praying over buckets of fried chicken at Bojangles on a Sunday afternoon. I had never imagined that my college education would leave the walls of the classroom in this way, nor had I imagined that photography would enter my studies. But the experience forever changed me. I had a new way of viewing learning, and I was willing to build my education upon it. I soon embarked on my brand new curriculum: Documenting Asian American studies.
Becoming a Program II student demanded independence and resourcefulness. Because I didn’t have my own academic department, I had to design courses to fit my own needs and rely on professors directly. I also had to defend the academic rigor and the legitimacy of my program repeatedly to myself and to others. But all of these constraints necessitated a kind of freedom and creativity that I loved. I spent my free time applying for grants that seemed underutilized by others, and this enabled me to travel around the country to conferences. I also tried to take advantage of my time outside the classroom, as I did photography for fun, making friends with photographers and photographing friends’ dance performances.
All of these elements planted little seeds that would come back together later on as I negotiated my new place in the “real world” as an entrepreneur creating my own photography career. It was my thesis grants that led me to California for a summer—a place I fell in love with and where I now live. It was a Defining Movement dance performance that became my first paid photography gig. It has been my numerous Duke connections that have turned a side hobby into a real wedding photography business. My Duke friends have been my clients, my cheerleaders, and my greatest supporters.
I never intended to become a photographer, just as I never intended to do Program II in documentary studies and Asian American studies. But it turns out that resourcefulness mixed with a bit of serendipity and a lot of love will take you to the most beautiful places you’ve yet to imagine.