Published April 20, 2021 at 4:52pm.
Interview by Mary Martin. Photos courtesy of Alex Quian.
Alex Quian was finishing up a degree in Information Science at Cornell University when a friend and mentor gave him a big challenge. Rather than seeing if he could complete a marathon, or take a sky-diving lesson, Alex was challenged to complete 30 community service projects in 30 days. That initiative has transformed not only Alex’s perspective on volunteer work, but also sparked the creation of the Better Together Foundation, a new book, and a scholarship aimed at supporting young leaders. Our conversation with Alex highlights ways young people can help those around them in a meaningful ways, and direct their passion and skills toward social change.
During the summer of 2019 you launched an initiative where you completed 30 community service projects in 30 days. Can you tell us about your life leading up to that summer and what spurred you to make that kind of commitment?
I grew up in The Colony, Texas, so I’ve called Dallas home all my life. Up until that summer, serving my community was something I enjoyed doing, but I wouldn’t have called it a priority. For the most part, I would occasionally serve through student organizations.
In spring 2019, I was finishing my junior year at Cornell University. Through an internship with my mentor, Greg Weatherford II, and my experiences meeting people from so many diverse backgrounds at Cornell, I had become exposed to various social issues and the ways that others were working towards addressing them. Because of this, I found myself wanting to make a difference and help my home community, but I had no idea how.
I shared this thought with Greg, and that’s when he challenged me to complete 30 different service projects in 30 days to immerse myself in community service. He felt that my journey could also inspire other young people to serve and give them 30 practical examples they could follow if they didn’t know where to start. I loved the idea and I decided that I would accept the challenge to give back to my community.
When you took on the 30 day mission, how did your friends and family support you and get involved?
First and foremost, my parents did everything they could to support me while I was serving. They were encouraging and did their best to take things off of my plate so I could just focus on the project. I am very lucky that I had them to lean on for support!
I was also very thankful to receive an outpouring of support from friends when they heard about what I was doing. I had many people send thoughts of encouragement that were appreciated when the journey felt especially challenging. I also had some friends—and even total strangers—tell me they were so inspired by my journey that they started doing some service projects on their own. I cherished those moments because they affirmed that our mission was being fulfilled, and we were having impacts beyond the service projects we were doing ourselves.
Tell us about some of the service projects you tackled. Did any of those experiences change your outlook on a particular cause?
One of the great things about doing so many different service projects is the opportunity to explore different causes! It was like a crash course in how you can make a difference throughout parts of your community. Some projects I completed include starting a reading program at a Boys and Girls Club, hosting an appreciation lunch for teachers, donating kits with dorm essentials to first-generation college students, donating new shoes to people experiencing homeless, and registering young voters.
The 30 Days of Service experience helped me realize I have a passion for helping young people develop personally and professionally so they can be the best version of themselves. Many of my service experiences contributed to that realization, but none more than my 18th project where we taught soft skills to a group of underserved youth. It was a privilege to provide young people with the opportunity to learn valuable skills they may not ordinarily learn in the classroom. I’ll never forget how excited the students were to learn. I was also touched by how thankful they were that someone invested time into sharing knowledge in this area.
After this kind of immersive experience, what is your thought process on volunteering across many causes versus choosing one cause and going all in? How can people find a place to truly dedicate their time and energy?
I think whether you choose to volunteer across many causes versus focusing on one depends on how you see yourself helping the community. I’d encourage people to think about their goals before they start serving. Do they want to address needs in the community as they arise, or is there an issue they are so passionate about that they want to devote all of their volunteering time to it? Both are equally valuable approaches to service, it is a matter of what you feel is best.
In terms of finding a particular cause to support, the best thing to do is explore. Although you don’t need to do 30 projects, trying out a few different causes can be like trying out interesting electives in college. Hopefully, this process can help you discover an unknown passion or area you really want to hone in on.
You’ve talked about how you are especially passionate about students getting connected to community service opportunities. What are some of your best tips for students, especially after a school year turned upside down, if they are looking to create meaningful social change?
I’d recommend any student start by seeing how they can help the people closest to them. In a year rife with challenges that have affected us all, it’s important to take care of those in our homes, our neighbors, and peers. The kindness you show to them will ripple throughout the community and inspire them to help others in turn. This is a great way all of us can have an impact and start immediately.
Beyond this, I’d recommend learning about the different challenges your community may be facing. What is the nature of the issue? Who does it affect? Why does it exist? With this context, you can start to find ways you can get involved. Perhaps there are organizations already doing great work in your community that you can volunteer with. If there’s not or you have your own ideas for how to help, then start organizing some small projects and grow from there. Whether you create your own project, volunteer at a local soup kitchen, or do something else, it’s important that you just get started and explore your community through service.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to lean on the advice of others throughout this process. Reach out to people doing similar work and ask to connect and learn from them. Ask for help online. You will be surprised by how many are willing to help you succeed and make an impact.
A book was birthed out of your service project experience—what was it like taking your personal story and sharing it with the world?
It was a somewhat daunting but incredibly rewarding process. I truly believe that the key to healing the divisions in our community is getting back to a place where we realize we are all better when we work together. There’s no better reminder of that than serving your community. The act of working alongside others to spread kindness has a transformational power to uplift not just those we serve, but each other as well. I feel fortunate to be able to share my story of experiencing that firsthand so that I can encourage others – especially young people – to serve.
Not everyone can give financially, but almost everybody can serve, so we all have the power to help our communities. With that in mind, it was important for me to not only share my story, but also provide practical, actionable guidance so that anyone reading the book can feel empowered to make a difference. So, writing this book was a reflective process that prompted me to recognize the many lessons I was fortunate to take away from my service experiences and package them in a way that would be most helpful to the reader.
What causes stuck with you over the past two years? Are there issues you learned about that have become lifetime passions?
Empowering youth through educational opportunities is something that I’ve become deeply passionate about over the past two years. I know that I was only able to go on this journey because I was afforded opportunities to learn and pursue my ideas by people who believed in me. I also know that unfortunately, there are many kids out there that are never given the opportunity to reach their potential. It is my goal to reach as many of those kids as possible and do what I can to help them thrive.
To that end, we’ve recently launched a scholarship fund for DFW high school seniors since they have had to face so many unique challenges in their final year due to COVID. To help them continue their important educational journey, we will be awarding four seniors with $2,000 scholarships. Additionally, two of the recipients will receive a paid Summer 2022 internship with one of our partners, JSX.
We’re also exploring programming that can help youth develop personally and professionally, lead healthier lives, and get prepared for their futures. We’re very hopeful for the future, and we are especially excited about the possibility of collaborating with organizations and companies that share our passion for investing in youth development.