Carissa Chen

Year of Graduation: 
Carissa laughing during class.

"I've always been moved by artists and writers who turn their experiences of discrimination into art that humanizes themselves and others."

Editor’s note: Since this profile was published in 2017, Chen has continued to write and make art while attending Harvard. In late 2020, she was named a Rhodes Scholar. About her current and future plans for study, Chen says: “I research economic inequality and how communities recover from conflict and historical atrocities, and I’m excited to continue this research at Oxford. I also hope to work with and help in domestic violence shelters in England.”

Discovering a way with words

Carissa Chen ’17 grew up in a home where literary works were in short supply, which seems ironic, given the number of accolades Chen has received for her writing. Probing a bit deeper, the lack of good fiction begins to make sense. “My grandparents and mom grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution, when literature was regulated by the state,” she explains.

By no means did a dearth of books in Chen’s childhood home translate to an absence of culture. “When I was younger, I played piano, and later transitioned to the visual arts,” she says. Indeed, Chen, who is from Tustin, California, is an exquisite portrait painter and photographer whose work has been exhibited in The White House.

Writing, however, would come later, at Exeter, although it initially presented a few hurdles. “I couldn’t understand the concept of ‘show, don’t tell,’ she remembers. “Then one day, my teacher said, ‘Instead of describing yourself crying, describe the setting and the things that made you cry,’ and it finally clicked. It was a real paradigm shift for me.” After two more inspiring terms of prep English, Chen began writing in earnest.

“I wrote poetry for fun initially,” she says, “but as a lower, I started worked on Pendulum [Exeter's literary-arts journal], and I came across a villanelle and a sestina that different students had submitted. I was so intrigued with the forms that I decided I wanted to try writing that way, too.” She did, and the forms fit.

Through the urging of a friend and one of her English instructors, Chen applied to the National YoungArts Foundation’s YoungArts Week, an intensive program of master classes for aspiring teenage artists. When she learned she’d been admitted and received a scholarship to attend, Chen, who is disarmingly humble, says she was “confused.”

But the encouragement by her Exeter instructors and peers to tell her own story, and the invitation to then share that story through her writing, seem to have propelled Chen to even greater artistic heights. In the past few years, she's been a runner up for the prestigious Patricia Grodd Poetry Prize for Young Writers, for which her winning submission was published in The Kenyon Review, and she's interned with the Academy of American Poets in New York City.

This year, Chen was selected to be the US Presidential Scholar in the Arts for poetry and earned the Scholastic Gold Medal Portfolio for a collection of poems and essays on topics as varied as gendercide in China and India and post-reconstruction convict leasing in Alabama.

The Gold Medal Portfolio comes with a prize of $10,000, which Chen will put toward her education at Harvard College, where she plans to major in English and computer science. Her sponsoring English instructors each received $1,000, which Chen thinks is the perfect apogee for her Exeter story. “I feel like this is the Exeter English Department’s honor as much as mine.”

Poet, painter and social activist

A talented artist as well as a writer, Chen says the literary and visual arts have been central to her growth and identity: "When I was younger, I had an art teacher who taught me, 'Learning to draw is learning how to see.' That phrase has stuck with me, and I’m still learning how to see."

Chen combines her love of both fields with a commitment to social justice. "I've always been moved by artists and writers who turn their experiences of discrimination into art that humanizes themselves and others," she says.

She tries to do the same in her own work. "My photographs explore the Asian-American experience and society's treatment of women and the sick and elderly," she explains. "Most of my paintings are self-portraits about how I struggle to contextualize my identity. My poems are often historical, persona-related poems that explain a personal question that I can’t quite understand without a different perspective."

While at Exeter, Chen was a dorm proctor in Merrill Hall and a member of the Ethics Forum, Debate Club and the MLK Day Committee. She also served as the editor of Pendulum.