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A New Path for Student Leadership at Tsai CITY

grid of photos of ten students

The Tsai Center of Innovative Thinking at Yale (Tsai CITY) has a mission that centers student experience, a commitment originally embodied through the Student Advisory Board (SAB). Created in 2017, the SAB sought to bring together students from across Yale's campus to represent student voices within Tsai CITY’s development. It played an important role in advising staff on Tsai CITY programming and offering student feedback as Tsai CITY started. However, as the center established itself on campus, and as COVID-19 dramatically altered the educational landscape, the need arose for new methods of student engagement. Now, six years later, the SAB is transformed into the Student Fellows program to better reflect the evolving aims of Tsai CITY and the community it serves. 

Meet the Fellows

Tsai CITY is excited to welcome the following inaugural class of Student Fellows for the 2023-2024 academic year: Savannah Neibart (YC ’26), Thimali Bandara (YC ’24), Casey McGuire (YC ’25), Teo Dimov (YC ’25), Po Eic Quah (YC ’25), U Jin Seah (ARC ’25), Yuqing (Dorothy) Wu (GRD ’25), Matthew Kaspy (SPH ’24), Ethnie Xu (ARC ’24, SOM ’24), and Jon-Paul Lapeña (DIV ’26). Together, these 10 students represent Yale’s undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools across a range of expertise in areas such as sustainability, arts, civic innovation, healthcare, technology, entrepreneurship, and management. They are student leaders across campus who will act as ambassadors for Tsai CITY within the broader student body by providing outreach marketing and targeted engagement with Tsai CITY programs, as well as strategic advisory support to Tsai CITY leadership. 

Under the leadership of Victor Padilla-Taylor, the director of mentor, advisor, and partner networks at Tsai CITY, the Fellows will build on the original advisory role of the SAB to create a bidirectional exchange between Tsai CITY and the larger Yale community. Victor shares:

“A key benefit of this fellowship is the opportunity for professional development, such as leadership and presentation skills training. I celebrate this inaugural cohort of diverse and accomplished Tsai CITY Student Fellows for their willingness to embrace new perspectives as a driver to innovation, but also for their capacity for empathy and understanding across multiple disciplines.” 

Savannah Neibart, a Fellow from Yale College, hopes to represent other undergraduates like her who could use Tsai CITY’s resources towards their journey of academic discovery. “I think as an undergraduate most of my peers are just kind of figuring it out. They’re not really set on a path, so in a way they might be even more open to exploring what entrepreneurship looks like,” Neibart relates. “I think one of the best things about Tsai CITY is the emphasis on not being an elite space. You don’t need to know the technical side, you just have to have an idea or want to be around people with good ideas. I think that’s what’s so amazing about the Fellowship and I’m just really excited to be involved with that.” 

Program Goals

In the Fellows role, students will have the chance to work alongside Tsai CITY leadership to develop programs and skills specific to their careers and communities.“We want students to not just advise us but also be ambassadors for us,” said Zoe Hunter, Managing Director at Tsai CITY.

“Now, the Student Fellows will be going into their respective communities—whether at the graduate and professional schools, Yale College, or in their respective organizations—and serving as ambassadors for the work that we’re doing. The Fellowship also allows them to program and do things for Tsai CITY outside of Tsai CITY’s building to really push our message, our brand, and our offerings out to those who might not otherwise engage with it.” 

students surrounded by tour attendees
Fellows in action at Tsai CITY during our Yale Alumni Association Assembly and Convocation Tours.

As Hunter explains, the program is truly a “blank canvas” for the students to shape based on their own individual pursuits. Though the Fellows will be responsible for curating two themed community events for the Fall and Spring semesters, they are also encouraged to independently reach out to their own affinity groups, disciplines, schools, and others within their specialized domains of expertise to describe Tsai CITY’s mission and invite student engagement. Some, like Ethnie Xu, seek to grow their own ventures and reach other founders on campus through joint affiliations at organizations like the School of Management and its Design and Innovation Club. Others, like John-Paul Lapeña, hope to bring innovation principles into nontraditional areas for entrepreneurship, like the humanities. “I wanted to become a Tsai CITY Student Fellow because spaces that cultivate change and innovation are incredibly exciting for me,” he shared. “I want to ensure that students from all backgrounds, including those underrepresented in the humanities, have opportunities to engage with Tsai CITY's programs and initiatives. I believe that diversity is a crucial driver of innovation, and I want to be a visible and relatable role model for other students from underrepresented backgrounds.”

Future Impact

Together, the Student Fellows hope to foster a greater community of acceptance and innovation at Tsai CITY. Accessibility in particular played a key role for Ethnie Xu when she considered the goals of the fellowship and its legacy. “As a student, I think it took me a long time to eventually step into the door of Tsai CITY and engage,” she acknowledges. “I recognize this barrier of entry for many students who either have an idea or have a long-term career goal but don’t yet feel ready to get engaged with this community. So I really hope to facilitate as someone who welcomes them and holds their hands into this final step if they need it.” 

For Lapeña, such accessibility is also integral to his personal mission at Tsai CITY as one of the few Fellows representing the humanities.

“My primary goal as a Tsai CITY Student Fellow is to leave a lasting impact by creating a tangible blueprint that encourages humanities PhD students to consider entrepreneurial ventures as a viable alternative academic career path,” he shares.

“I envision building a clear and accessible pathway that showcases the resources and opportunities available to them within Tsai CITY. Ultimately, my impact will be defined by humanities PhD students finding a new and exciting path that aligns with their passions and academic expertise, because of the work I have contributed to creating at Tsai CITY.”

In the end, the Fellows reflect Tsai CITY’s investment in community and in fostering connections with the larger Yale and New Haven innovation ecosystem. Po Eic Quah, a former Summer Venture Associate at Tsai CITY, underlines the importance of spreading Tsai CITY’s message beyond its walls. “I want to introduce the idea that entrepreneurship is not that scary,” he explains. “I think when people think of entrepreneurship they usually think that they have to be a founder or that they have to do something really important within the space, but I think that we need to start deconstructing that sort of thinking, to dismantle it and build it back up. We need to promote the idea that anyone can be an entrepreneur in their own space.”