Inspired by a Bridge-Builder, a 'Third Culture Kid' Finds Her Own Story

Sonal Shah. Photo credit: Paul Morigi, Brookings Institution, via Flickr.

Sonal Shah, founding president of The Asian American Foundation, joined IFYC founder and president Eboo Patel in a conversation with IFYC staff last month. Launched in May, The Asian American Foundation represents the largest philanthropic effort in history to focus on funding, convening and advocating for the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, a diverse cohort representing over 23 million people, 50 ethnic groups, 100 languages and a variety of religions. Yesterday, President Joe Biden nominated Shah to serve on the President's Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

IFYC staff member Noa Nakao wrote this reflection on Shah's visit. To read an essay on the visit by her colleague, Dr. Janett I. Cordovés, click here.

Noa Nakao

“When was the first time you remember being a bridgebuilder?”

This is a common icebreaker question that we use at IFYC, and on this particular Thursday, I found myself pushing past my comfort zone to ask it in front of all my coworkers to Sonal Shah.

Shah is an extraordinary leader whose most recent position was serving as the founding president of The Asian American Foundation. While under normal circumstances, I would not have found myself with the courage or opportunity to ask such a question, as IFYC officially welcomed back employees to the new hybrid office last month, we were gifted a chance to learn from and engage in conversation with Shah.

In her interview with Eboo Patel, founder and president of IFYC, I was immediately drawn to how her experience mirrored mine. I’ve always struggled with the term “Asian American” because while I identify with many of the cultural experiences shared in the Asian American community, at the end of the day, I’m not technically American. I was born in Japan to my amazing parents who met in seminary over a shared calling to serve the Japanese community in America. Their journey to answer this calling brought them to Three Hills, Alberta, down to Lethbridge, Alberta, back to Japan, to Los Angeles, and finally to San Jose, California.

Being an immigrant and a part of the first generation of my family to make the leap to American life is a major part of my story. This is a core aspect of who I am that was being ignored by lumping myself with other Asian Americans around me, just to feel a semblance of representation.

Listening to Shah’s story and her accomplishments, I was struck by how rare it was for me to see a highly successful Asian woman whose early life experience I could truly relate to. Furthermore, her story sparked a reflection on the negative impact this has had on what I viewed my potential to be.

As a first-year student at Wheaton College, I chose to be an international relations major over political science not because of any informed intellectual decision based on the differences between the disciplines, but because I had thought I was limited by my international status. Shah shared about moving to the United States at age 4 and witnessing her parents struggle, but still saying that, “We didn’t think of ourselves as poor. We didn’t think in terms of what we couldn’t do, but of what we could do.” Like Shah’s, my parents have been nothing but supportive of my dreams and potential, but along the way, I had found ways to let outside culture plant seeds of doubt.

Women like Sonal Shah remind me that my international upbringing is one of my biggest assets and never a limitation. During her conversation, Shah shared about how her unique position as someone who did not “look American” allowed her to enter tense political environments as the “third side” while working with as a U.S. Treasury official in Yugoslavia. Building from this, she also emphasized the larger career importance of knowing yourself, playing into your strengths, and choosing your next steps accordingly.

Just earlier that day, I had been in a conversation about my experience as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) and how it had uniquely prepared me to be an interfaith leader. TCKs are children who grew up in a different culture than the one their parents grew up in. By acting as a bridge between the two cultures, they often find themselves developing their own, third culture. Fascinated by the potential of a growing generation who possess an innate bridgebuilding mentality, I had a chance to ask Sonal how she felt her TCK experience affected the way she answers the question, “When was the first time you remember being a bridgebuilder?”

Her answer was not unexpected: that she had been a bridgebuilder all her life and could not point out a specific moment where that switch was made. She then, however, went on to say that we need to stop over-intellectualizing and lean into the intuitive aspects of bridgebuilding.

She’s right. Even if you are not a TCK, we all possess some form of innate ability to cross lines of difference. Maybe you served as a buffer for your divorced parents tense relationship, or perhaps you played on both the basketball and softball teams growing up and had to navigate the very real, intra-school politics of winter vs spring sports.

We all have these intersecting identities that make up our whole selves and along the way, we have all picked up the necessary skills to make excellent interfaith leaders. As more and more trailblazers like Sonal Shah show us what we can achieve, we must also remember to take some time to reflect on what we already possess. It’s time we recognize our biggest assets and put them to use.

(Noa Nakao is program assistant for academic intiatives and higher education partnerships at IFYC.)

#Interfaith is a self-paced, online learning opportunity designed to equip a new generation of leaders with the awareness and skills to promote interfaith cooperation online. The curriculum is free to Interfaith America readers; please use the scholarship code #Interfaith100. #Interfaith is presented by IFYC in collaboration with


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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.