The Power of Community for One Cooke Scholar

Michelle To reflects on her experience as an Asian-American from the Bay Area this Asian, Pacific Islander, and Desi American Heritage Month.  

Michelle poses in front of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan last summer.


Through all of her endeavors as a student, Michelle To has held on to one central passion: her own community in West Oakland. 

Michelle, a 2018 Cooke Young Scholar, graduates high school in a few weeks and will enroll at Stanford University this fall as a Cooke College Scholar. Her identity and the obstacles she’s observed among her family and in her neighborhood have guided her through her high school journey, as well as her decision to choose a college also located on the West Coast.  

“The identity thing with college has been a really big and surprising part,” Michelle said. “There’s a different type of identity on the East Coast. ‘Asian’ is a really general term. There’s so much more to Asian identity than ‘Vietnamese’ or ‘Chinese.’” 

When Michelle was touring colleges on the East Coast, where she originally thought she might want to go, she missed the diversity within the Asian community in her hometown (about one third of the U.S.’s Asian population lives in the state of California). 

At home, Michelle’s family speaks Teochew, her parents’ home dialect. Both of her parents grew up in Vietnam, but her father is Chinese. She also speaks Cantonese, and learned Mandarin through self-teaching and a study abroad language immersion program at National Tsinghua University in Taiwan last summer. She wants to take Vietnamese classes at Stanford, and is interested in studying abroad in Hong Kong – options that are difficult to find at most colleges in the U.S. Access to these opportunities are another reason she chose Stanford.  

Growing up in West Oakland meant that Michelle spent a lot of time in Chinatown, where she has long been an active community member. Early in the pandemic, then-9th grader Michelle founded a local biology research program, Teens in Health, that engages teenagers with a love of health, science, and learning.  

“When COVID started, all the schools shut down. There were a lot of high schoolers with nothing to do and no science opportunities,” Michelle said. She decided to create opportunities herself. 

Michelle To extracts DNA from strawberries at her local Oakland Library’s branch in Chinatown. She organized the event through Teens in Health, a program she founded, to teach local middle schoolers about the properties of DNA.

Through Teens in Health, Michelle has organized lots of educational opportunities for youth in her community, such as the DNA extraction event pictured above. She even published this cookbook of cultural and family recipes with her team, and curates research reports and study guides on the Teens in Health website. 

All of Michelle’s possible career paths tie back to the love of her community. In addition to language, she is interested in health and public policy, machine learning and its power to predict social patterns like gentrification (a big issue in Oakland and the Bay Area), and neuroscience. Her mother, who struggles with health challenges, is a full-time caregiver for Michelle’s grandmother, who suffers from health problems as well. Michelle has noticed multi-generational care is a common occurrence in Chinatown.   

“I think it goes unsaid a lot of the time how much my community takes care of their family,” Michelle said. “And how some people get left behind.” 

Michelle’s profound respect for her immigrant parents, passion for healthcare, and her love of culture and language, are strong driving forces in her life. Wherever her educational journey takes her, just as we have seen during her time as a Cooke Scholar so far, we know her future will be bright.