She’s the First tea brings students, community together to support education for girls

By Marine Elia

At 22 years old, Shimul Melwani left her hometown of Mumbai, India, fleeing an arranged marriage. She wanted to forge her own path and headed to America to earn her master’s degree in industrial and labor relations at Cornell University.

After obtaining her Ph.D. in management and organizational behavior at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Melwani is now an associate professor of organizational behavior at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill.

On Sunday, March 3, she spoke as a panelist alongside two other women for the annual She’s the First tea to celebrate International Women’s Day under the elegant chandeliers of the Carolina Inn. She’s the First is a student organization at UNC-CH that seeks to combat gender inequality by fundraising for girls’ education in the developing world.

“My parents didn’t speak with me for my entire first year in grad school,” Melwani told the audience, “But seeing all that I’ve accomplished, they’re very proud now.”

Sipping tea, sharing stories of empowerment

A group of 30 undergraduate students and community members listened attentively to the experiences and professional advice of the panelists, sipping Earl Grey and noshing on cranberry scones as they nodded in solidarity with the sentiments they shared with the panelists.

Viji Sathy was next to address the group. She was born in Chennai, India, but grew up in Hope Mills, North Carolina after moving there as an infant. Like Melwani, she also pursued higher education to evade an arranged marriage. Sathy is a triple Tar Heel — having earned all three of her degrees from UNC-CH. She teaches quantitative psychology in the Department of Neuroscience and Psychology and works alongside some of her former professors as colleagues.

“School was presumed for me at the undergraduate level, but it’s when I pursued a higher degree that my parents wanted me to start thinking about getting married,” Sathy said. “It was this cultural clash of myself being raised in America.”

Born into a family of female educators — her mother was a middle school math teacher and her grandmother a math professor — LuAnne Pendergraft taught history and museum studies courses at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina. She then used her journalism and history degrees to establish a career in public relations and nonprofits. For seven years she served as the executive director of Northeast North Carolina’s Center for Hands-on Science, an interactive children’s education initiative.

“I wanted to have a space where young girls can use pipettes and microscopes. You should see how their eyes light up,” Pendergraft said. “We want to build that confidence in young girls by showing them what they are capable of by presenting them with women who are doing great work, whether it be in science or in other fields.”

Building self-confidence has not proven to be an easy task, even among women with doctoral degrees undertaking large projects. When Sathy and a female colleague were offered a book deal, she admitted they were timid during the negotiation process.

“We weren’t sure how we would be perceived if we wanted to negotiate, we didn’t know what to do,” Sathy said. “Were we supposed to stay with the number they offered us? Were we supposed to counter? We were hesitant, but reached out to others in the business and realized, ‘okay, yeah it’s expected of us to negotiate.’”

She’s the First club member Jiselle Vellaringattu reflected on the advice the panel gave to young women on how to exert confidence and voice their thoughts in classrooms and offices.

“I don’t want to think about my gender identity before my qualifications as that will allow me to excel as I apply for internships in the male-dominated field of STEM,” Vellaringattu said.

Facing the pressures of being a young woman in college and specifically in the STEM field as a computer science major, Vellaringattu realized she often restrains herself from asking questions. In order to give the impression that she is more knowledgeable about the subject than she actually is, Vellaringattu said she tends to avoid asking male teaching assistants questions, and instead only seeks the help of her female TAs.

Supporting the next generation of women leaders

Beyond the sea of brightly colored Lily Pulitzer dresses, porcelain teacups, and the statement jewelry for auction, the tea recognized those who do not share in the same privilege of the attendees and panelists.

On the tables next to the clotted cream and the assortment of strawberry and apricot jams were flyers of the young girls sponsored by the UNC-CH chapter of She’s the First. Ester, Keerthara and Sweetie’s smiling faces showed guests the students whom their contributions are benefitting.

Ester is from Guatemala where she attends eighth grade at the MAIA Impact School. On weekends, she rises at 5 in the morning to help her mother cook and sell Guatemalan-style tamales called chucitos in front of the Catholic Church of Sololá.

At the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project in Bangalore, India, Keerthara loves to color pictures and learn English in her first grade class. Sweetie is also in first grade at the same school and cites coming to school for the first time as one of her favorite memories.

Allie Savino, president of She’s the First at UNC-CH, reflects on the four annual teas she has helped come to fruition. In the event’s first year, only 20 tickets were sold.

“We organize it every year because it’s a great way to celebrate women while at the same time raising money for a cause we’re all passionate about,” Savino said.

The tea raised $2,000 for tuition and school supplies for the sponsored students, all while empowering young women preparing to emerge in the professional world.

Perhaps in several decades, Ester, Keerthara, and Sweetie will be the panelists inspiring the next generation of women at the She’s the First annual tea.

Edited by Mitra Norowzi

UNC senior brings the pianos of Graham Memorial to life

By Marine Elia

In the oak-paneled Graham Memorial study lounge, the room resonates with the heavy, melancholic notes evocative of a Chopin piece. The scene is akin to that of a 19th century drawing room, with dim lighting from the chandeliers illuminating students reclining on gleaming leather sofas. Emotion effortlessly flows from the piano into the ears of the people in the room. Tucked away in the corner, the varnished baby grand shines. The pianist, a girl in neon yellow overalls, is consumed by the music.

The pianist is Tianzhen Nie, a classically trained pianist and Hawaii native. During her brief spurts of spare time as a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she brings the pianos of Graham Memorial and Hill Hall to life.

“Pure bliss,” she said in response to how music makes her feel.

Nie may have trained classically from the ages of 6-17, but she hasn’t stopped improving her musical skills. When playing in spaces on campus, she frequently makes her impromptu performances interactive by calling on her audience to give an emotion for her to recreate on the piano.

“The thing about music, though, is that it’s really like acting. In that moment, when you’re playing, you can step into whatever mood or realm of feeling you want, even if it’s not the headspace you’re currently in,” Nie said. “It’s really like a kind of escape.”

Nie refers to improvising as her preferred form of playing. The inexorable connection she has with the piano allows her to play flawlessly without even glancing at the keyboard.

“I’ll ‘Bird Box’ it and look away or just close my eyes,” Nie said, alluding to the recent Netflix original psychological thriller.

A unique talent discovered and a special bond formed

Although she knows music is an innate characteristic of her mind and soul, Nie accredits her training to her piano teacher in Honolulu. Earning the endearing title of “Auntie Alice,” Nie’s teacher, Alice Hsu, continues to be her motivator and biggest fan.

Hsu aspired to become a professional pianist after graduating from music school in Vietnam, but switched routes to teach the next generation of young musicians. Hsu taught at Nie’s elementary school and first encountered her when she was a talented third-grade piano player—with awful technique. Hsu took her in as a student for private lessons.

“After the foundations were built by having the discipline to practice every day, that’s when her creativity and passionate [playing] started to show,” Hsu said.

Nie recalls Hsu’s piano studio where she spent endless hours rehearsing the standardized piano tests to advance to new levels of piano mastery.

Lessons would always begin with a conversation on how Nie was feeling, a demonstration of the warm, familial relationship between the teacher and student.

“She cared about not just how I developed as a musician, but as a student and person,” Nie said.

Overcoming obstacles

Like many tales of success, Nie’s did not come without its trials and tribulations. When she was in fourth grade, Nie rebelled against her parents and rejected the five hours a week spent practicing. It didn’t take much to quell an 11-year-old’s uprising as her parents stressed the importance of piano as an outlet and creative pursuit.

During the recession in 2008, Nie’s father lost his job, and her piano lessons had to be placed on a hiatus until he found employment. Nie’s piano career could have been canceled indefinitely if not for Hsu, who saw her potential and offered to give her pro bono lessons due to the magnitude of her talent.

“I was compelled to help,” Hsu said. “She was too unique for me to let her go.”

Early on, Nie’s independence and creativity were in the nascent stages of development as she chose the pieces she wanted to play under Hsu’s “democratic teaching.” It would be this sense of musical autonomy that led Nie to compose her first piece at 12 years old. As part of a project in middle school to create a video in iMovie, she used her talents to compose the background music. The impressive feat earned her the attention of her principal who wrote her a letter describing how proud she was of her.

“When I received the letter, that’s when I stopped and said, ‘Okay, yeah. I might just be good at this,’” Nie reminisced. To further her talents, she sought new spaces where she could grow, such as her church where she practiced improvising and accompanying the choir.

A creativity that can’t be bound

Last summer during a study abroad program in the Galapagos with her environmental studies program, Nie was inspired to once again unearth her composer persona. With a team of friends, including an aspiring documentary filmmaker, the group of students produced a short four-minute documentary for which Nie wrote the score.

Nie intends to start composing again, but with multiple art forms clouding her vision of a future as a soloist, the task of composing is an arduous one. As a cellist and having a background in Chinese zither as a nod to her Chinese heritage, Nie does not suffer from a lack of instruments to absorb her creative fluids.

At the intersection of creativity where talent runs in multiple veins of expression, music lends itself to poetry. Nie is a member of the UNC Wordsmiths, the spoken word team on campus. She represented the Wordsmiths at the College Union Poetry Slam Invitational, the national competition for college spoken word teams, for the past two years.

Her repertoire ranges from pieces parodying Donald Trump to statement-making feminist commentaries intent on changing the stigma around periods.

Mistyre Bonds met Nie in a poetry class her freshman year and is also a member of UNC Wordsmiths. She describes Nie’s writing style as “beautiful and powerful at the same time.”

Bonds envisions Nie “conquering the world” after graduation with her ability to connect to others.

Nie’s future abounds with possibilities. If she chooses to continue her education, she will pursue a master’s in environmental studies with a focus on environmental disasters and how they affect minority communities.

Earlier this semester, Nie began to flirt with the idea that her art could flourish into a successful career. Terence Oliver, who teaches motion graphics in the School of Media and Journalism, came across one of Nie’s spoken word performances on YouTube entitled “Person of Color” in 2017 and offered her $250 to participate in a video showcasing UNC’s talent and diversity.

Still waiting to discover if an artistic path will overtake an academic one, Nie said she will navigate her future with the mantra she applies to her musical improvisations, “When I make a mistake and hit the wrong note, I turn that mistake into a new melody.”

Edited by Mitra Norowzi and Natasha Townsend