Rachel Rui (’09, ’14) remembers the date—July 13, 2007. Her first day in America.
Before leaving Beijing, she had coordinated with Peter Gross, the now-retired director of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s School of Journalism and Electronic Media, who picked up Rui and her late husband, Harrison Pang (’10, ’11), at McGhee Tyson Airport. In a truck Gross borrowed from his son, they fit six bulky pieces of luggage containing every normal item people bring when moving overseas plus an entire kitchen’s worth of Chinese cooking supplies Rui wasn’t sure she’d be able to purchase in Knoxville.
University Housing had told the couple their apartment wouldn’t be ready until two weeks after their arrival, so before the trip Rui reached out to the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) on campus. A graduate student offered his place, and Gross dropped them off there to take their first steps in a new country.
Once their own apartment was ready, Rui and Pang offered to pay the student for his generosity. But he rejected the money and asked only that in the future, if another international student reached out to them for help, that they do it.
“And that’s what we did,” Rui said. “We opened our home to international students for years after that because of that very kind act.”
While pursuing a master’s degree in journalism, Rui worked in the communications office of the UT Institute of Agriculture. After graduating, she worked in various other roles at UT while completing a PhD in communication and information. In 2019, she was named director of Asia engagement, an office within the Center for Global Engagement, where she also serves as communications director.
“At first I thought I was just going to stay for my master’s degree,” Rui said. “But there’s something magical about this place. It’s 14 years later, and I’m still here.”
In China, Rui had been a fan of Japanese manga comics and Korean soap operas. But she and almost everyone around her was Chinese. It took being in a new country far from home for her to expand those boundaries of identity and start seeing herself as part of a much larger community of Asian people.
She became involved with student organizations such as the CSSA. She volunteered as marketing and communications director for the Knoxville Asian Festival, which she watched grow from 3,000 attendees in Krutch Park in 2014 to more than 60,000 in World’s Fair Park in 2019. For the festival’s promotional materials, she gathered stories of business owners from countries like Laos, Vietnam, the Philippines, India, and Indonesia—people who, like her, had come to Knoxville from far away and planted new roots here.
But Rui’s activity really picked up after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the significant increase in incidences of hate against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community.
“There was a lot of discriminatory and hurtful language. People were living in fear and feeling marginalized,” Rui said. “I knew we needed to step up to help and show people that we are part of this community.”
In March 2020, Rui and other Chinese community members helped organize a group of nearly 200 volunteers who delivered more than 40,000 items of personal protective equipment to East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, the Knoxville Police Department, UT Medical Center, senior living facilities, homeless shelters, and other locations.
“AAPI people are often portrayed as model minorities; we’re hardworking, we never make any trouble,” Rui said. “But we are invisible.”
Her mission at UT became doing all she could to bring visibility to issues affecting the AAPI community.
With the university seeking to support and recognize the contributions of faculty, students, and staff of AAPI backgrounds, Rui and others have spent the past months organizing events and compiling resources for AAPI Heritage Month. Recently, a dozen faculty and staff members, including Rui, submitted a proposal to the Division of Diversity and Engagement for a Commission for AAPI, which would provide a platform for AAPI people within the university to better advocate for their needs, collaborate across campus and the community, and combat racism.
The spike in activity makes Rui hopeful that more people will get involved over the next year.
“We have an opportunity to open eyes and break the silos we live in so that everyone can feel a sense of belonging at UT,” Rui said. “It is going to take a lot of people carrying the torch forward in order to make a long-lasting impact.”
Fourteen years after arriving in Knoxville, Rui is driven by the memory of a conversation with Pang one of their first nights here together, while staying in the apartment of the kind international student. We stay here out of the generosity of others, he had told her. Let’s remember to always pay it forward. After Pang passed in 2018, Rui established an endowment in his honor, which supports international education and recruiting and provides undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships for study abroad
“That spirit of giving back is what is keeping me strong throughout this,” Rui said.
Brian Canever (865-974-0937, email@example.com)