Reflections on TCCA’s 30th Annual Leadership Conference

101 Tzu Ching students from all over the United States gather alongside Tzu Chi volunteers to hold their first in-person Tzu Chi Collegiate Association (TCCA) Leadership Conference since the pandemic began. Photo/Bohan Chen

Written by Wen Tseng, Katie Chu, Christina Chang   
Translated by Hong (Ariel) Chan
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto

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The light of a single firefly may be limited, but many fireflies together can light up the night. And so, the slogan for this year’s U.S. Tzu Chi Collegiate Association (TCCA) Leadership Conference, “One light shines bright, many lights illuminate the night,” encapsulates this message, too.

In just the same way, teens from across the United States set out as one to meet for the 2022 TCCA Leadership Conference, which spanned four days, from August 11–14 and took place at Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Regional Office in San Jose, California. A total of 101 youths and dedicated staff from all over the United States had gathered to hold their first in-person leadership conference since the pandemic began. Focusing on the four core themes of community, leadership, service, and Dharma, the conference aims to inspire students to do good deeds and strengthen the connection between individuals and the communities they serve. Through sharing experiences and techniques, students at the conference improved their leadership skills and deepened their understanding of the Tzu Chi spirit.

During a virtual activity on the 13th, Tzu Chi’s founder, the venerable Dharma Master Cheng Yen, encouraged all volunteers and students to maintain a vast heart of unconditional love. Master Cheng Yen also expressed her expectations to attendees, saying, “Young Bodhisattvas, our strength alone is not enough. We need many, many good people, and this society needs more Bodhisattvas.” Wise words, indeed, for the love of a Bodhisattva is without limits, and with love as our guide, there’s no end to the good we each can do together.

Courses at the conference cover the four themes, or pillars, of community, leadership, service, and dharma. Photo/Changming Rong
Attendees of the TCCA Leadership Conference were grateful for the opportunity to virtually meet Tzu Chi’s founder, Dharma Master Cheng Yen. Photo/Wenguang Zhu

Dharma in Our Interactions

Bryan Xiao served as a leader of the course affairs group for the first time. Bryan had begun partaking in Tzu Chi’s disaster relief amid flooding in Texas seven years prior. While aiding in the distribution of cash cards and eco-blankets, Bryan observed volunteers’ sincere care for survivors, and it moved his heart deeply. In the years since he joined Tzu Ching, Bryan has participated in three conferences in the U.S., and one held internationally. Bryan believes that the most formidable part of the lesson preparation process is “transforming the Master’s teachings into positive, effective participation so that Dharma can be implemented in daily life.”

From the course activities, Bryan saw that Tzu Ching partners from all over the United States shared the aspiration to help others and promote kindness collectively, which offered great encouragement. Bryan volunteered to lead the Tzu Ching team to unfold and transform Master Cheng Yen’s teachings into meaningful everyday actions. After graduation, he hopes to continue assisting Tzu Ching members with social events and more.

Attendees this year can really expect to have a really warm and welcoming environment with lots of people who are there for them — to help inspire them, to help them grow within themselves as people, and within their own chapters back home.

Marilyn Kung
Tzu Chi Collegiate Association

Iryl Tan is the eldest daughter of Baoru Chen, Deputy CEO of Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region, and is currently studying at the University of Texas at Austin, where she was responsible for the school’s annual Tzu Ching social event in 2021. During this year’s TCCA conference, she managed several digital art projects and served as a student leader during conference activities. When she served in the Tzu Ching club at UT Austin, she not only devoted herself to recruiting students but promoted vegetarianism through virtual events during the pandemic, inspiring her peers to keep engaged via environmental responsibility.

Varied activities help TCCA members explore the Tzu Chi spirit in greater depth, foster a sense of national youth camaraderie, and inspire good deeds. Photo/Bohan Chen

“I am very fortunate to have grown up in a Tzu Chi family,” expressed Iryl Tan. “After leaving home to study, I met a new group of Tzu Ching members in Texas. I constantly discovered new things during my interactions with people of different backgrounds through Tzu Chi. It made me feel that my blessings should be shared with others. Finally, I made a wish to Master Cheng Yen, hoping to bring the warmth of the Tzu Chi familial community and great love to those in suffering, and introduce it to more young Americans so that they can join Tzu Chi and contribute to society together.”

Engaging activities encourage attendees to work together. Photo/Zuyi Jin

In 2015, through a friend’s introduction, Allan Tien encountered the Tzu Ching club at Texas A&M University. At that time, he couldn’t understand why his friend devoted so much time to Tzu Ching’s activities. It was not until the following year, when he participated in TCCA, that he discovered the heartwarming rapport between members and was moved by it. He realized how many genuine and caring individuals there were in the world and vowed to join in.

Allan spoke about his impressions of TCCA, saying, “This time, aside from myself, there is also the new generation of A&M Tzu Ching seniors, and some of them are working as club leaders. I am very touched and encouraged. I didn’t expect the A&M Tzu Ching family to expand like this. I think the biggest change is in myself. When I interact with people, I not only change what I say verbally or do outwardly, but what I want to say and do is from the bottom of my heart.” 

A dedicated team brainstorms ways to inspire learning, put one’s compassion into action while connecting to the broader community, and understand the message of unconditional love Master Cheng Yen delivers. Photo/Alex Ma
Team members and presenters initiate conversations about mindfulness and unpack what it means to build a better future. Photo/Alex Ma

Let Love Steer the Path

“After two years of online Tzu Ching conferences,” said Tzu Ching member Alex Ma, “we have paid special attention to inheritance in planning this Tzu Ching camp. Tzu Ching seniors have all returned home to participate and host the first happy reunion since the pandemic.”

Marilyn Kung, an activity coordinator from San Jose, California, likewise shared, “Because we are still in the middle of the pandemic, and because of my geographical convenience, it is my duty to undertake the work of activity coordination.” Marilyn has participated in Tzu Chi activities since the sixth grade and has rich experience in hosting Tzu Chi activities. Through regular online discussions, Marilyn collaborated with Tzu Ching and Tzu Chi volunteers from various locations virtually and planned meaningful activities for this year’s conference.

Throughout the whole planning process, it felt like, ‘Oh, we’re working toward something, we’re finally here now.’ So, that’s pretty exciting.

Iryl Tan
Tzu Chi Collegiate Association

Starting from scratch, Marilyn and TCCA members from all over the world — including Evelyn Cheng from Seattle, Washington, Steve Chen from Washington, D.C., and Victoria Low from San Diego, California — organized the work structure of the 2022 TCCA conference. Evelyn graduated from National Hualien Girls’ High School four years ago and attended college in Washington. Evelyn, who grew up in Hualien, Taiwan, said, “Although I had the opportunity to interact face-to-face with Master Cheng Yen when I was a child, I still look forward to connecting with her at TCCA this year. Being able to connect with people and things in Hualien makes me feel at home.”

Workshops inspire youths to explore Tzu Chi’s three guiding principles: Gratitude, Respect, and Love, sometimes abbreviated by Tzu Ching members as GRL. Photo/Victor Rocha

Blessings Through Everyday Mindfulness

Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Regional Executive Director, Minjhing Hsieh, also attended the conference and expressed his sincere hopes for all. “This year’s conference is the first large-scale event held in the service center since the pandemic. It is very special,” Executive Director Hsieh reflected. He further thanked the volunteers who came from all over the U.S., and from local communities. Young people bring hope and vigor to Tzu Chi, and he hopes that everyone can inspire each other, exchange experiences, and light up each other’s hearts amidst the thought-provoking activities at this multi-day conference. Executive Director Hsieh is especially grateful to Master Cheng Yen, who took time out to encourage young people in the United States in real-time. 

The most emotional is the connection with Master Cheng Yen because seeing her live is very emotional. Also, I feel like I am connecting with my own grandparents.

Lily Kang
Tzu Chi Collegiate Association
Tzu Ching graduates and future leaders in the making hone their skills, learning how to support one another as well as their community. Photo/Hongyi Lin

Debra Boudreaux, CEO of Tzu Chi USA, also took to the stage at the conference, expressing her appreciation, and welcoming everyone back to their home at Tzu Chi. She additionally gave thanks to Tzu Chi volunteers, who strengthen communities and uphold Master Cheng Yen’s teachings, “Extending connections and expanding love, interacting with others at the moment.” Debra Boudreaux also spoke about her hopes for TCCA members, sharing, “Master Cheng Yen’s compassion relies on the next generation so we can achieve success together. Tzu Ching should cherish and grasp such privileged karma and interact with the venerable Master virtually at any time.”

I was very privileged to get the opportunity to talk to Dharma Master Cheng Yen, [and] getting to see the audience so happy and hear her meaningful words. She’s actually very funny. She has humor to her personality, and I was so lucky to hear about how she wants to inspire us. I also plan to learn some more Chinese, as she asked me to continue my learning in that language so that I could speak to her next time.

Samanta Corte
Tzu Chi Collegiate Association
Scrumptious vegetarian meals provide plenty of fuel for conference attendees. Photo/Andy Chiang

As this year’s annual U.S. TCCA Leadership Conference came to a close, peers reflected on the calls to action to lead positive change — both within themselves and the world around us. Every student came to the conference with soft light and renewed their energy through the event. Now, they’ll take that light, strengthened by the support of others, back to their respective communities and send that love ever forth.

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