GW Serves: Chemistry Student Believes Changes to Justice System Matter

Vicky Wang, also a criminal justice minor and future forensic chemistry graduate student, gains inspiration tutoring kids from underserved communities at D.C. nonprofit.

April 12, 2023

Vicky Wang

GW junior Vicky Wang volunteers with the nonprofit For Love of Children, which aims to improve the academic performance and college readiness of students in underserved communities around the D.C. area. (William Atkins/GW Today)

As a chemist, George Washington University junior Vicky Wang is well-versed in the study of how properties, compounds and elements change behavior when they react with other substances.

And as a math tutor at For Love of Children, a nonprofit organization aimed at improving the academic performance and college readiness of students in underserved communities around the D.C. area, Wang has gotten a first-hand glimpse of the lack of resources and tools kids have in underserved parts of the city compared to others. But through her service work the past three years, she’s also become aware of just how much mentorship and access to education can change a person’s outlook or path in life.

She’ll combine her academic pursuits with values she’s gained from tutoring when she starts in the master’s in forensic chemistry program—also at GW—beginning next spring.  She has hopes of changing the behavior of a U.S. justice system that hasn’t always treated everyone equally under the law. According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there is disproportionate incarceration among certain demographics of the population, and another study from the California Law Review found that there are also demographic disparities in the composition of DNA databases.

As much as she loves the bare-bones aspects of quantifying and analyzing elements on a small-scale, Wang wants to do more than just run tests in a lab. Especially since she’s worked closely with children whose communities have been directly affected by demographic inequities in the justice system.

“Forensic chemistry in particular attracted me because it's not just pure research, per se,” said Wang, who also is minoring in criminal justice. “It allows me to tie my chemical interests into interacting and working with the larger community.”

She is just as passionate about wanting success for that larger community she’s invested herself in as she is figuring out the fundamental behaviors of matter.

Some of her fondest memories from For Love of Children, which she joined during the virtual academic year in 2020-2021 through the GW SMARTDC program at the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement, have been the relationships she’s built with these children. And through this, she’s discovered that what they need the most is opportunity to thrive, build up confidence and find their own strengths through education. Wang finds inspiration seeing children work through a difficult problem set and watching them build self-confidence along the way.

“Math is just something a lot of students feel intimidated by, so being able to work with them through that and see that little light bulb go off really affirms my choice to do service with them,” Wang said.

She credits a high-school dean of hers for leading by example and showing the power of empathy. Even as the inside of a lab became her home away from home, Wang never let go of the service value instilled in her while growing up in Palm Harbor, Fla.

“I was really grateful for the amount of selflessness and grace others had shown toward me, and I wanted to pay that forward in whatever community I went into,” she said.

She has done just that during her time at GW, as she also serves as the co-president of the Asian American Student Association. She has big aims of using her chemistry skillsets and interactions with children in the D.C. public school system as a means to influencing change to the nation’s justice system.

“Justice system interaction and education can definitely be tied together,” she said.

And as she’s seen so many times in a lab, great change can come when all elements come together.

GW Serves is a monthly series featuring students who are living out the university’s mission to build up public service leaders and active citizens to create a better world for all.