Postbaccalaureate Candidate Has Stories to Tell

Judy Wang AC ’07 (wearing blue, right) surrounded by a group of her Liberian students.

When Judy Wang AC ’07 returned from a Smith-sponsored trip to India in 2006, she thought she might have had enough of world travel—at least for a while.  Monsoon rains, blazing heat, recurrent sickness and a narrow miss in the Mumbai bombings of that year had left her with little taste for international adventure.

Then she uploaded the photographs she had taken in India from her camera to her computer.

“They were beautiful,” she recalls. “Not because of my photo-taking ability, but because of India. I thought, ‘Why was it that when I was there I couldn’t see the beauty? Why was it that when I uploaded the photos, all the beauty came out?’ That meant something in me had to change. If the camera can see it, I can train myself to see it!”

Training herself to see things clearly, and from others’ perspectives, has become fundamental for Wang. The realization about her photographs, combined with her longtime love for mathematics, became part of a constellation of experiences that inspired her pursuit as a postbaccalaureate candidate in Smith’s Center for Women and Mathematics. There she uses her talent for looking at situations from different perspectives to develop unusual applications for mathematics.

She is particularly looking for ways to combine math and development, she says. For instance, “using the tools of math to model disease infection or the effects of fertility control or unemployment—these kinds of social and economic meters.” With her research partner, Simcha Gilber ’14, she is currently working on a mathematical model to try to predict human migration patterns should the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea be removed.

The narrow focus of her current research belies the range of Wang’s experience. She has lived in Taiwan, been evacuated from Mali during a coup, managed a theater company in Beijing, worked as a cashier at a plant nursery in California’s Silicon Valley and taught math as a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia.

Her experience as an Ada Comstock Scholar at Smith also informs her—sometimes in surprising ways.

“When I was at Smith, I took a costume design class with Kiki Smith. I never thought I would use it; I just took it because it looked interesting and Kiki seemed like a really cool prof.”  Years later, during rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet at the Beijing Playhouse, the costume designer quit. As stage manager, Wang was on the spot. “I had to take over,” she said. “I ended up using the skills I learned in Kiki’s class to design the entire wardrobe.”

That success led to Wang’s recruitment in a much higher-profile production, as stage manager for the Chinese premiere of Margaret Edson’s (’83) Pulitzer Prize–winning play, Wit.

“It’s the work of a Smith alum, and it won a Pulitzer,” Wang says. “So of course I jumped at the opportunity.”

Wang’s work in theater and beyond has given her the opportunity to work with people from a range of backgrounds. She credits her experience at Smith with making that easier—in one way especially.

“I think out in the world, often, women will feel rivalry with one another,” she says. “Because I came to Smith, I’m very comfortable working with women—when I see other women, I don’t sense this competition.”

In her work and travels, Wang has had countless experiences. Her passion for development was fueled in Liberia the summer before she enrolled in the postbaccalaureate program at Smith.

As a Peace Corps teacher in a large school in the West African countryside, one of the tasks Wang dreaded was collecting homework. Like teenagers the world over, some of her students would search endlessly for their work, hand in the wrong assignment or figure out other ways to delay the start of class. She remembers a chaotic process that often took up far too much of the 45-minute class period. But she also remembers the day one student—a boy named Manner Windor—stepped to the front of the class just as she was about to begin collecting homework.

“Here, Miss Judy,” he said quietly, handing her a neatly stacked pile of papers—the entire class’s homework, carefully organized. “Please begin class.”

For Wang, figuring out ways to stimulate opportunities for people like Windor is more than just a job or an academic exercise. And it’s anything but simple.

“I often wonder if our help is what others really need or want.…In fact, I think [what] host-country nationals appreciate most about Peace Corps volunteers is not necessarily what projects we do but that we really try to know what it’s like to be them. When I see people in desperate circumstances, the first desire in me is to feel what they are feeling. Perhaps this is why I got into theater in the first place, this need to walk in others’ shoes. If something good comes out of this process, great. If not, I will still have a rich story to tell.”