Off the Cuff with Selene Siyun Pan, Nudge Founder and Director


Selene Siyun Pan is the Founder and Director of Nudge, which provides mentorship to international students from the greater China region.

College second-year Selene Siyun Pan is the founder and director of Nudge, an intercollegiate mentorship program for international students from the greater China region. Originally from Shanghai, Pan studied in Costa Rica for two years before coming to Oberlin College as a Bonner Scholar. In the few months since the program’s inception, she has recruited mentors and mentees from around the globe. Pan is an East Asian Studies major and currently serves as a co-coordinator for El Centro Volunteer Initiative.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What inspired you to develop Nudge?

I think one thing I learned through diverse environments is that the environment that we grow up in — our family background, the resources that we were given when we were a child and throughout our process of learning, going to school, and getting internships — really has a big impact on us. I wanted to create Nudge because I saw that there were so many talented people around me, and [United World College Costa Rica] was sort of an opportunity for us to pursue our dreams. For me, I would have never had the opportunity — or I would have struggled to study abroad, especially at such a young age, if not for a scholarship. So I wanted to create something for youth that are really hard-working, talented, and great, who just need a push or two to reach their dreams. We give them a “nudge” so that they can have the resources to reach something.

Regarding that resource gap in international education, what are some common barriers that you see international students facing?

I think the main thing is about [lack of] understanding. But to be honest, I think Oberlin is such an inclusive environment, and everyone’s so incredibly nice. When I came to Oberlin, I was like, “Wow, everyone’s so nice. Why are they so nice to me?” But … I think there are a lot of resources and opportunities at Oberlin for international students to — I don’t like using the word “fit in,” but I can’t find a better word for it — to just blend in with the rest of the students, namely Americans. At the same time, I feel like there are not enough opportunities for [domestic] students to get to know about the stories of international students. And that’s something I would like to either work on or help contribute to as well.

Has the pandemic affected how Nudge operates?

I think the pandemic actually pushed Nudge to be born because if there was not a pandemic, I wouldn’t be at home for such a long time. I wouldn’t have the time to work on a project outside of school that requires so much energy and resources and networking. I wouldn’t imagine operating a platform that is mostly online or that people from different parts of the world can join. I know that completely online-operated education platforms like this have existed, and a lot of them have succeeded. But I think the pandemic opened a new door to me and made me realize that a lot of things can operate online, and they can still work almost the same as working in person — it sometimes even increases our work efficiency and enables us to reach out to more people.

Nudge was born in August, and it was really random. I was at this pottery workshop with a friend, and we were just playing with the clay. I’m just a person with a lot of ideas in my head all the time —And I was telling her, “There’s so many things I want to do: this and that and this and that.” And she was like, “Wow, they all sound great, but maybe we can start with one of them.” And I was like, “Cool, sure.” I think that having a team right now, having the opportunity to get to know so many great people from different schools, different backgrounds, and across the world working together on one common mission is an incredible chance, and I would not have imagined that.

What made you decide that Nudge mentees should have the final say in who they’re paired with?

There’s an organization called Teach North Korean Refugees. It’s based in Seoul, South Korea. I was their summer intern for two summers, and also I volunteered with them this past summer with another friend at Oberlin College. Their program basically is dedicated to supporting North Korean defectors in South Korea by providing them English tutoring and career opportunities — that’s their new track right now. I had the chance to work closely with [one of] the founders, and what he taught me is that many of them back in North Korea were not given choices … So one of the most important things is to let them know the choices are theirs, and that they own them. That really moved me.

In terms of this mentorship program, I was just thinking, “Wouldn’t it be better if we can let the mentees choose mentors for themselves?” Even if it’s not [choosing from] one out of 10 mentors, just one out of three mentors. That’s still a lot better because it is their choice. It is their career or school that they’re applying to. I’m not going to cook a soup and just be like, “Hey, here it is. Drink it.” You know, it’s better if there’s a buffet and they can choose what they want to eat.

Nudge’s work goes beyond Oberlin’s campus. Could you talk about how other schools are involved with this program?

Our team comes from four different countries. So we have mainland China, we have Singapore, we have Peru, and we have America. We have another applicant that we will be talking to from Palestine and Jordan. So yeah, it’s pretty interesting. I posted in my alumni group chat [for recruitment] — maybe that’s why we got people from really different places. 

For our mentors, we require them to at least have a pretty good understanding of Chinese culture, just to have smooth communication and understanding with their mentees. But for our working group and board members, we really are open to everyone. Regarding schools, we have two [mentors] from Amherst, one from Yale. … We have New York University, Mount Holyoke College, Vanderbilt University, Smith College, Leeds University, Rhode Island School of Design, and University of California Santa Barbara. We have a very diverse pool, which is great because everyone’s just learning different things, doing different majors. There’s someone that’s working full-time already, and there’s someone that’s pursuing their master’s and doctor’s. 

Our target group for mentees is the greater China region. So that includes mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. But our long-term goal is to perhaps reach other regions as well. I think I’d like to … somehow reach out to more students in Hong Kong because right now all of our students are either in or from mainland China. And then I would love to reach [the rest of] East Asia. … We’re accepting mentees from underprivileged and underrepresented backgrounds. I think underrepresentation is a huge point that a lot of people are ignoring. When we think of Chinese students studying abroad, most of the people are more well-off and are more privileged students. And I really want to … [demonstrate] more diversity in the group and let students have the chance to show themselves, to present themselves, and for more faces of one identity to show.

Looking toward the future, what else do you hope to see Nudge accomplish?

I think [one goal is] definitely to attract more passionate people and motivated peers to join the program, to reach out to more high school students … because I think right now it’s easier to get mentors compared to mentees. And I think another thing is to really just create a sustainable and long-term platform that attracts more talents and provides more resources, for example, through partnership. And [I hope] mentees today can be mentors in two years, or maybe even next year, and they can … in the near future provide assistance to their peers or people who they want to help, to just make a positive impact in general.

Is there anything else you want to add?

A lot of the time I’m really thinking about why I created Nudge and how I am feeling as a participant in this program. I was actually talking with two mentees in the past few days. One of them, when I first talked with him, I was so tired. I was just so done with everything. But when I talked with him, I was like, “Oh my God, this is why I wanted to do this — they are the reason. My heart is so full.” He was telling me that he didn’t really understand the difference between Early Decisions I and II. And I was like, “No worries! I’ll give you what we can, and you take what you need!

I think through working with mentees, I kind of went back to two years ago. It was a very interesting experience because I realized how much I forgot about my [college] application process and who I was, how I was as a high school student. So I realized how sometimes we’re so focused on the present that we forget about the past, and we forget about who we wanted to be. And sometimes we go a bit further when we’re walking alone, but we can walk a longer way when we’re walking with others. … If we want to look into the future, it’s really just about carrying that past with us instead of throwing it away, because when we carry it as a part of us, it’s not baggage.

More information about Nudge can be found on the program’s website.