Celia Chen’s decision to take up the guzheng — a Chinese string instrument — was a gift to her grandmother, who loved Chinese folk music but was unable to find any to listen to in the United States.
“As her grandchild, I really wanted to give that back to her, so I had asked my mother and grandmother to help me find a teacher,” Chen said.
Chen was 11 years old at the time and could already play the cello. After just four months of training on the guzheng, she earned a silver medal at her first international competition. It was clear that she had a gift for music.
“I spent most of my life pre-college as a semi-professional musician,” Chen said. “I would get sent to Hong Kong to perform. I performed for the UN, and different diplomats and business associations.”
When she arrived at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Chen brought her instruments along and was eager to be part of a community of musicians. She joined the orchestra as a cellist, but soon took on a third instrument. When the previous harpist graduated, the director asked Chen to learn. She didn’t think twice before agreeing to try it.
The opportunity allowed her to rediscover music, in a new way, she said. “For my own enjoyment, and for the pure sake of loving learning.”
So far, Chen has learned how to play eight different instruments. She has performed with the Rensselaer Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, with Josh Groban during a performance at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, and at numerous campus events. This fall, she has been invited to play the guzheng in Beijing.
But her passion for knowledge isn’t reserved for solos and concertos in a concert hall. This zest for life is how Chen has approached her entire college career. She will graduate in May with dual degrees in cognitive science and psychological science, finishing her coursework in just three years — by accident.
“I just loved taking so many classes, I unintentionally fulfilled my major requirements, and then some,” Chen said.
On top of that course load, Chen took advantage of the rich research opportunities available on campus. As an undergraduate, she worked on research with cognitive scientists Alicia Walf and Daniel Thero, as well as at the Cognitive and Immersive Systems Lab, an opportunity she signed up for right after freshman orientation.
Outside of her academics, Chen served as president of the Chinese American Student Association, where she increased membership and the number of events the group held. She worked with the Multicultural Leadership Council and helped revitalize the Asian cultural community.
As an immense recognition of her leadership and dedication to building community, Chen was inducted into the Phalanx Honor Society this year. While she is honored, Chen said that her immersion into the Rensselaer community — much like her decision to take up the guzheng — was motivated by a desire to help others.
“Prior to college, I didn’t have much of a community to rely on, and I was determined to change that when I came here,” Chen said. “As I met more and more people, I realized that a lot of people also came from a background where they didn’t have that community, and I wanted to give that to people.”