Meet the Team: Helena Berbano

We would like to introduce a member of our ASPIRE volunteer team:

What is your role in ASPIRE?
I am a Development Co-Chair.

More about Helena:
Helena is a nonprofit professional with various experiences in both the public and nonprofit sectors. She currently works as a Field Coordinator for Nonprofit VOTE. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Merrimack College and earned her Master of Public Administration from UMass Boston. Aside from civic engagement and advocacy work, Helena is very passionate about musical theatre and the arts. In fact, prior to finding her “civic calling,” she was on track to study Classical Vocal Performance. She continues her passion for music and the arts by being involved in community theatre and being a frequent karaoke-er!

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September 1, 2015 · 4:34 am

Journey to Somewhere

My name is Julie Sun Hee Eshelman.  I am 33 years old, single (but never alone), and my name has a story.  Some people’s stories start with the hospital they were born at or the times they were born.  Mine has always begun with an explanation.  A validation of who I am.  It has become my way of teaching people to think outside the box when it comes to ‘family’.  It’s become part of my identity… or my monologue (if you will), because I’ve been asked to explain my story more times than I’ve been asked  if I want milk or cream in my coffee (I prefer cream).

Julie Sun Hee Eshelman, Conference Marketing and Communications co-chair

Julie Sun Hee Eshelman, Conference Marketing and Communications co-chair

I was born as Yoon Sun Hee in Kang Won Do, South Korea and was given up for adoption in 1979.  While most babies at this age are learning to walk, talk and bond with the families that brought them into this world, I was learning to walk, talk and bond as Julie Sun Hee Eshelman with the family that had adopted me here in good old Massachusetts.  I am not Jewish (although the Hillel House at Umass Amherst would probably disagree).

In life, there are the journeys that present themselves to us, and then there are the journeys that we choose.  The journeys that present themselves to us make us stronger, build character and help shape who we’ve become today.  However, I strongly believe it’s the journeys that we choose that show us just how strong we’ve become, allowing us to reveal our characters, and more importantly overcome our biggest obstacles… ourselves.  I’ve been told that as a baby in the orphanage, I was very quiet and withdrawn and didn’t take easily to strangers. My friends and family that know me well would probably never use these words to describe me now, however, these personality traits have been a shadow throughout my life, and become a source of frustration for me in situations when I can become painfully shy.  The realization that I can still sometimes feel like that little girl in the orphanage even at the ripe age of 33, is what finally led me to the decision to do something this year that would challenge me to change.

I will admit that I initially joined the Marketing & Communications team for ASPIRE’s 2011 Asian American Women in Leadership Conference in order to check volunteer work off of my ‘to do’ list for 2011.  I had no expectations of what I would gain from this journey.  My only knowledge of this Boston-based non-profit organization was that I would be investing some of my time and energy into planning their annual conference dedicated to developing career and leadership skills for Asian American girls and women.

What I have learned from this experience is that in order to further promote the inspiring message of this organization, I would need to develop and fine tune my own leadership skills, so I could begin practicing what we were intending to teach.  I began to think outside the box in terms of my own self-image and stopped hesitating so much before letting my voice out.  It’s given me a sense of pride that I remember feeling as a child; like the rush you get after getting your driver’s license and driving alone for the first time in the car.  I realized that ‘rush’ had been a missing piece in my life as I grew older.

What started out as a chance to promote ASPIRE’s upcoming conference this November, has ended up becoming an incredible support system on my own personal journey.  I’m proud to say it has given me the opportunity to meet a great group of women that I can add to my corner of family and friends.  Hope we can help you with your journey.  Make time to reinvent yourself.

For more information about the 2011 Asian American Women in Leadership Conference click here:

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July Speaker Series

Our third Speaker Series was held on Wednesday, July 27 at Microsoft New England Research & Development (NERD) Center in Kendell. We welcomed Suzanne Lee, Lisa Wong, and Diana Hwang, and explored the theme of Asian American women in politics. Suzanne Lee is an educator and community organizer, founder and longtime chair of the Chinese Progressive Association, and a founding member of the Massachusetts Asian American Educators Association. Lisa Wong is Mayor of Fitchburg. Diana Hwang is the co-founder and Executive Director of Asian American Women’s Political Initiative. Moderated by Speaker Series Committee Chair Van Nguyen, the panel had a a candid conversation about the different points of entry, participation and generational views of Asian American women’s approach and entry into politics.  Each speaker discussed the possibilities and challenges of forwarding their vision for community building and institutional change. Facilitated by Speaker Series Committee Chair Anh Nguyen, the Questions and Answers session had a number of great questions to the speakers.

ASPIRE and the Speaker Series committee thank the three speakers for openly sharing their stories and the attendees for their time to join us! The committee is planning the next event to be held sometime in the fall and looks forward to seeing you all again! Please come back to our website for future information!

Photos by Sandra Kim

Szeman Tse (ASPIRE), Kozue Sawame (ASPIRE), Van Nguyen (ASPIRE), Suzanne Lee, Lisa Wong, Diana Hwang, and Anh Nguyen (ASPIRE)

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Meeting Asian American leaders

This summer, the national convention of NAAAP (The National Association of Asian American Professionals) will be right here in Boston. Held at the Seaport Hotel and the World Trade Center Boston from August 11th through 13th, this year’s convention explores the theme of “Road to Revolutionary Leadership.” Boston’s familiar faces are scheduled to speak as well, including Jeannie Suk, the very first Asian American woman to be tenured at Harvard Law School and and Janet Wu from Channel 7, both of whom were speakers at our ASPIRE AAWIL Conference in the past (by the way, our conference is coming up on Saturday, November 5th at Simmons College. Stay tuned for more info!). This convention hops around the country annually and was in San Francisco, CA in 2010 and Denver, CO in 2009. This year, it’ll be here! There will be no (or almost no) traveling cost required, so why not take advantage of this rare opportunity to be part of the event as an attendee or a volunteer and meet these amazing leaders from all over the country!

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Project ASPIRE’s Personal Stories

The Youth Leadership Program completed its course in May with an evening of friends and family. The girls had come from different schools, neighborhoods, and backgrounds, but each took a valuable lesson away from the program.

They had wanted to embody and empower the voices of Asian American youth and women. Having shared a space for connecting, sharing stories, and building supportive relationships, they boldly shared the stories of their personal journeys. Published below are random samples of personal reflections performed by two YLP girls.


My name is Jiamin and I am Asian. It’s pretty obvious. So what kind of labels did you just put on me? Math-genius? Quiet? Obedient? Play an instrument? Middle class? Problem free? Or that I eat rice everyday? Quit making these assumptions!

Let me tell you something. I am none of the above. I am a struggling Asian. I am definitely not an overachiever in school–worst of all, I am having problems in pre-calculus! Yes, you heard it right. Math class! Ugh. How sad!

Anyways, you see everyone thinks that Asians have no problems, like we are ALL getting the good grades, the good jobs, the good food and all. But that’s not true! We have struggles too, but no one is recognizing this.

Like most Asian immigrant parents, my dad works in a restaurant. He wakes up at 8 in the morning to get carpooled to work and he won’t get home until 11:30 at night. I don’t even see him that much on the weekdays either. You see, he’s trying hard to provide for his family. This is very typical among Asian families.

And the place that I work, I see Chinese moms struggling to teach their children homework; I see them having a difficult time understanding that English letter sent by the government with absolutely no translation. I see them struggling to learn English, so they could assimilate to be more “American” and more acceptable in society.

Why is this happening? Why are we labeled as the “model minority” while we, Asians, are still struggling in some unspeakable ways? Of course, many of our fellow Asians have accomplished great success. But you see there are many us out there who need help. When every other race thinks that Asians have no problems, that’s a big problem! We are not getting the resources that we need. We are not being recognized nor are we heard by society. When we are not heard, we are left to struggle in silence.


There was a time in my life in which I abhorred myself. I didn’t like the way I looked, the way I dressed and the slight immobility of my tongue that was a result of my being raised speaking Chinese. The TV told me to choose pink as a favorite color. It also gave me false hope that one day I could be that pristine, porcelain princess that Disney idealized.

As I got older, many problems kept stunting my transformation into Disney’s perfect image. I felt that I had grossly high cheekbones, lack of eyebrow bones, and didn’t possess anything that remotely resembled what mainstream society considered a bombshell body. Worse yet, I thought that I had sickly skin and crooked eyes that made indoors seem like a sunny place. As an Asian American I had struggled with low self-esteem through my preteen and early teenage years.

I chose to ignore my ethnicity for the main part. I strayed from discussions in school that involved my classmates’ different cultures at home. I continued yearning to be another girl—another person entirely. I dressed in hopelessly tight jeans in vain and wished that my body was just as well endowed as the women in the movies.

My Un-American, hard to pronounce middle name, Gar-yi, embarrassed me more than anything.

Ultimately, I came to a revelation that my physical appearance had little to do with my overall happiness and health. With help from supportive friends I learned that it wasn’t everyone else that forced their expectations upon me, but rather it was my acceptance of established stereotypes and ideals. I was only viewing the world through the tiny, distorted fish-eyed lens that only I could have put on.

I’m a prouder girl now. I’ve finally learned that my middle name wasn’t meant to embarrass me. Rather, my mom told me not to forget that she had given me my middle name to remind me that although we were halfway around the world from China, I would be Chinese no matter what. There was no way to escape this reality and there was absolutely no need to. I embrace this fact whole-heartedly because it is my identity.

Whether or not people like it, I’m Asian and I’m beautiful. I’ll never forget again. I promise, Mom.

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YLP Reflection and Recap

As the dedicated Youth Leadership Program Director, Heang Ly planned and executed the extraordinary banquet that celebrated the experiences of the YLP girls as well as the completion of the program this year. Below are her thoughts on her time with the YLP girls:

Heang and some YLP girls

By Heang Ly, YLP Director

This year I had the pleasure of bringing together eleven very diverse high school Asian American girls from the greater Boston area through ASPIRE’s Youth Leadership Program. The goal of YLP is to create and strengthen our identity as Asian American young women through building confidence, creating space for self-reflection and exploration, and fostering a strong Asian American sisterhood. This year’s programming centered on the theme of defining Asian American womanhood through the eyes of society, media, family, and self.

This year’s sessions were designed to be interactive and challenge the young women to express themselves through a variety of artistic expressions that pushed everyone out of their comfort zone. Interactive activities were built around dialogue and experiences to engage girls in expressing, sharing, and challenging each other and their own thoughts about identity. They practiced communication, public speaking, facilitation, acting, creative writing, and storytelling to create an atmosphere of co-learning.

Bright faces of YLP

There are many highlights from the year. For example, the Sticky Rice Project, an anti-racism training group out of the Asian American Resource Workshop (AARW), presented a workshop on Asian American women’s history in America and its effects on stereotypes that exist today. The girls took out their musical talents and drummed out their personalities through drumsticks with Genki Spark, an Asian American women’s Taiko drumming group. Through kickboxing we learned how important it was not just to keep our minds strong, but our bodies strong, too. We understood that we need to take care of both our mental and physical health in order to be our best.

At the end of our program in May, the girls took their experiences and brought it to the public. They developed artistic pieces to present their personal narratives in a final showcase to the community in the event called Project ASPIRE: Hidden Truths Unleashed.  The showcase engaged community members of all races, gender, and ages in thinking more about experiences of young Asian American girls. Stories spoke about finding voice, the model minority myth, lack of Asian American history in the schools and so much more. The night celebrated all of our struggles, successes, and honored women and youth who are leaders.

Although all YLP participants came from varying backgrounds and personalities, they learned to build friendship, trust, and a sisterhood through these differences.  Their shared stories and experiences bind them together to create a needed support system for each other that they will bring with them beyond the program. Eight of the eleven girls will be moving on from the Youth Leadership program at the end of the year to attend college. We wish them luck at Stanford, Umass Dartmouth, Boston University, and Dartmouth College. In their new environment we know they will always remember to hold their head up high, celebrate their identity, speak up, and continue to defy stereotypes and bust out of the boxes that society puts them in.

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Speakers Series Volunteer

The purpose of the ASPIRE Speakers Series is to provide a space for Asian American women to explore issues around identity, leadership, and professional development. The Speakers Series provides opportunities for Asian American women to meet diverse career professionals, create networks, and seek mentoring relationships. Our series are facilitated in a variety of ways, including panel discussions, workshops, and/or roundtables.

The ASPIRE Speakers Series committee is looking for a long-term volunteer to join our four-person team and assist us in event planning, coordination, and marketing. The next event will be held in late July with three more to follow in October 2011, January 2012 and April.

Please email a brief cover letter describing your past experience in event planning and your resume to Van Nguyen at

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