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A guiding light in RYLA

A week at a RYLA camp shaped one teen’s life — and her social conscience


Can one week in the life of a teenager set the course of her life? For Jennifer Chang, the answer to that question is a resounding yes. In her case, that week came between her junior and senior years in high school at a Rotary Youth Leadership Awards camp in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. And that made all the difference.

“RYLA — and Rotary — has been the number-one most influential thing in my life,” Chang says. “RYLA has always been what pushed my social conscience. It has shaped my career; it has made me who I am.” And as Chang tells it, she’s not the only young person on whom RYLA made such an impact: “There are several campers I know personally whose experience at RYLA shifted the course of their lives in dramatic ways.”

Today, in addition to her work as an immigration lawyer, Chang is a member of the Rotary Club of Cupertino, California, and since 2018, she has served as the RYLA chair for District 5170. The daughter of hardworking parents who emigrated from Hong Kong to the United States, Chang began her involvement with Rotary at a young age. Following in her brother’s footsteps, she joined the Interact Club of Los Altos High School.

RYLA — and Rotary — has been the number-one most influential thing in my life,” says Jennifer Chang. “It has made me who I am.”

Image credit: Ian Tuttle

In 1998, after she was elected president of the club in her junior year, the outgoing president told Chang she must attend Camp RYLA 5170 before taking office. It turned out to be the most felicitous of job requirements. “It was an incredible experience,” Chang says. “There’s something so utopian and heartwarming about the RYLA camp. There’s a level of trust and intimacy that’s built in a short amount of time. It’s a place that makes you feel so good about yourself and the world that I was sure I wanted more of it.”

That turned out not to be so easy. Chang applied to become a RYLA counselor as soon as she met the age requirement — after her freshman year at the University of California San Diego — but she didn’t receive her interview notice until after the hiring deadline. The following year, she interviewed for a counselor position but was turned down. “I was totally crushed,” she recalls.

In 2002, Rotary contacted Chang and asked if she was still interested. She leapt at the chance, and she has been involved with RYLA ever since. She climbed the organizational ladder to join the leadership team, which teaches modules on leadership to the students, and later the management staff, which devotes a year to planning the camp. In 2015, she was appointed camp director.

Jennifer Chang

  • Rotary Youth Leadership Awards, 1998
  • JD, Northeastern University School of Law, 2010
  • District 5170 RYLA chair, 2018-present

It was RYLA, Chang says, that ignited her passion for working with young people. After graduating from college with a degree in French literature and political science, she joined AmeriCorps and spent a year working at a high school in East Palo Alto that resembled the California school in the 1995 movie Dangerous Minds. The school had many students from immigrant families that faced disadvantages and lacked permanent legal status to stay in the U.S., and the environment was vastly different from the affluent community where Chang grew up.

“Another big discovery that I came to through RYLA was realizing that success could be defined in ways other than how much money you make,” she says. “Coming from a background with parents who struggled, my early concept of success was associated with financial wealth. RYLA helped me embrace the idea that there are other ways to be successful.”

Chang went on to study in Boston at Northeastern University’s School of Law, attracted by its reputation for focusing on public interest law. She intended to become a children’s attorney, and in her first job after law school, she represented foster children while working with Sacramento Child Advocates. When that position vanished after the agency lost its contract with the county, she reevaluated her options.

“I realized I wasn’t cut out for the courtroom,” Chang says. “My mom suggested immigration law — she was still grateful for the help she and my father had received — and being able to work with undocumented youth and their families held a lot of appeal for me.”

Chang started an independent practice that initially focused on people in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and has expanded to serve families of many different nationalities trying to navigate the daunting challenges that come with immigration procedures. She named her firm Pyrus Law.

Building on her own experience, in 1998, at District 5170’s Rotary Youth Leadership Awards camp, Jennifer Chang (shown in 2018) went on to become a counselor and assume leadership roles at the same camp.

Courtesy of Jennifer Chang

“It’s named for the survivor tree that was found in the rubble at the World Trade Center and replanted at the 9/11 memorial,” she explains. “I felt like that was symbolic of the struggle that many of my clients go through. Many of them are coming from chaos or a setting that is not serving them. They are coming to the U.S. to be nurtured back to health, to replant themselves and deepen their roots in better surroundings.”

With immigration laws under scrutiny and just one paralegal on her staff, Chang has plenty to keep her occupied, particularly with her continued commitment to having RYLA play such a central role in her life.

“We’re in the process of regaining our footing,” she says of the district’s RYLA program, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic caused disruptions in what had been an efficient system of outreach to youth by the district, with 5,000 young people in attendance at the annual Interact conference and 200-plus campers at RYLA.

“It’s said that RYLA is the engine that drives the Interact train,” Chang says, “but I’m advocating for clubs to select non-Interactors as well. My hope is for Rotarians to understand just how important it is to invest in our youth. I wouldn’t be who I am if the Los Altos club had not invested in me.

“But it goes beyond the Rotary pipeline. Investing in young people is how we grow Rotary. More important, it’s how we change and improve the world.”

This story originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of Rotary magazine.

RYLA is an intensive leadership experience organized by Rotary clubs and districts where youth develop leadership skills while having fun and making connections.