Chelsea Chen’s life, like her faith, is something she believes is led by the Holy Spirit.
The 17-year-old La Crosse Tribune Extra Effort nominee feels blessed to be living in the Coulee Region, where she’s attended Luther High School for four years.
“I learned about God,” Chen said, “and I don’t know how to put this, but it felt like a part of my life. The Holy Spirit led me to believe in this religion.”
As a child growing up in the Haidian District of Beijing, China, Chen was exposed to Lutheranism by missionaries teaching in the private school where her mother, whose English name is Anna, also teaches Chinese politics.
Anna felt strongly about her faith, and mother and daughter agreed it was important for Chelsea to seek a religious education. That isn’t necessarily possible in China, she said, where schools don’t usually have a religious background.
“That’s why I came here,” Chen said.
But, to spend four high school years in a new world, far from the only home she’d ever known, hasn’t always been an easy choice.
It was a decision that required sacrifice by her and her mother’s part, contextualized by an event that is still difficult for her to talk about. When she was 12, her father died unexpectedly from carbon monoxide poisoning. Chen is an only child.
“It was hard,” she said. “I’m just lucky to have all these people encouraging and supporting me. I met all these Christian friends.”
Travel hasn’t been easy, either. Chen goes back to Beijing each summer, but her mother has only been able to get passage to the United States once, when she stayed with Chelsea during her freshman year, which began in 2014. They’re hoping Anna can make it back for Chelsea’s graduation, but it’s complicated.
“There’s a lot of factors that play into it,” Chen said. “First, you have to get a visa, which, I don’t know how that works anymore. I guess we’ll find out how easy that is.”
Chen is using a student visa, an F1, but she pointed out that there isn’t one for a student’s parent.
The air time alone is about 15 hours one way, not including layovers. It’s a series of endless flights that brought Chen to a whole new world in Wisconsin. It was hard for Chen to adjust to life for the first half year she was here. She had trouble communicating with her classmates.
“I would kind of understand what they were saying,” she said, although English is mandatory study in China. But living among native speakers of a language is different from studying it. “It would be hard to express what I felt.”
For one thing, the language was a little fast. She would turn on the subtitles of videos so she could visualize what was being said when she watched something on TV.
It was quiet, too quiet, compared to Beijing. And, at first, lonely.
“I remember missing my Chinese friends a lot,” she said.
That didn’t stop Chen from excelling in school.
In addition to her sterling grades, Chen has found time to earn the respect of the faculty and student body at Luther, as well as doing copious amounts of volunteer work. She’s a member of the National Honor Society, a class delegate to the student council and a member of the pro-life group Pro Life Knights. You can find her doing volunteer work for the Good Steward Resale shop in La Crosse. She hopes to go to college in the U.S., too, hopefully studying biochemistry.
Joel Babinec, who teaches Chen in senior physics, has also been a member of her host family, along with his wife, Chris, since her sophomore year. He said she exemplifies the qualities of an excellent Luther student.
“She’s such a driven young lady, as far as her academics are concerned,” Babinec said. “She’s very meticulous about what she does. Everything has to be laid out correctly, and she’ll make sure that it gets done.”
He spoke highly of her strength of character, and, in return, Chen said loves her host family.
“They’ve been really nice to us,” Chen said. “They’re really, really nice people.”
She misses her mom. And, while Chen loves to be able to see her in the summers, she always has to return to the Coulee Region alone.
“That’s always the hard part,” she said. “Even though it’s been four years, it’s still really hard the first couple of days. I just kept thinking about her on the plane, too.”
Still, as with sports — she’s been on Luther’s cross country and track teams all four years — Chen has found resilience in adversity.
“A lot of the determination comes from the other people surrounding me,” she said.
She runs cross country and track, and loves them even though it’s hard and painful, because she loves her teammates who are supportive and encouraging.
Michaela Harbach, 17, is Chen’s best friend and also on the track team.
“Chelsea is one of the nicest people I know,” Harbach said. “She’s very supportive. Whenever I need something, she’s always willing to do something. She’s pretty funny, too.
Harbach marveled at how well Chen does when English isn’t her primary language. She said she had to do everything at the level of those around her, even though she’s processing it quite differently.
They also share similar feelings about the difficultly of track as a sport.
“I’m pretty much only it for the interaction with the other people, too,” Harbach said. “After we run, you always get a track high. We’re always kind of crazy and make lots of jokes. It’s pretty fun after we’re done running. Before that it’s pretty terrible.”
For Chen, track is as reminder that “nothing’s easy, so to speak.”