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Student Perspective: Connecting with My Culture through Student Life

Mary Icenolge as a young child with her parents.

Mary Icenogle worked as a student intern for Student Life Marketing from the fall of 2019 until graduating in May 2022. During this time, she served as a photography intern and was later promoted to student marketing and photography coordinator. As part of their duties, and in accordance with the Student Life vision, Student Life Marketing photography interns are encouraged to identify events they are interested in photographing to showcase the breadth of Student Life experiences. This experiential learning internship, one of numerous co-curricular opportunities offered within Student Life, provided Mary with the opportunity to seek out and connect with what she is passionate about. In this article, Mary describes her experiences from spring 2022 in her own words.*

Like many other Asians living in this country, I have had a long and tumultuous relationship with my heritage as a Chinese American woman. Getting to cover two events by Asian and Asian American organizations on campus was an exciting chance to reflect on what my identity means during the holiday. When asked to cover these two events (one event which I was very familiar with and another which I was less familiar with), I was excited by the chance to learn something new and revisit a familiar holiday through a new lens. 

I was adopted into a white household, but my parents wanted me to feel in touch with my cultural identity and sought to make me comfortable exploring my heritage. The Lunar New Year was always the time of year when I felt most in touch with this cultural identity. Sure, I didn’t grow up eating homecooked Chinese food or wearing traditional cheongsams, but my parents would take us to community celebrations for the Lunar New Year where my sisters and I could see traditional performances, get mandarin oranges and red envelopes, and snack on sesame balls. On the first day of the Lunar New Year, my mom would come in and read “Sam and the Lucky Money,” by Karen Chinn, to my elementary class and would hand out red envelopes with yuan for the kids to take home. It was such a small thing, but something I remember to this day. It was the one time of year when I felt a lot of pride in being from China and I was excited to tell people about my culture. 

The excitement and pride faded as I went into middle and high school, where the most important thing in the world is fitting in. Instead of loving to share what I once found unique and special, I felt more inclined to hide it away. For a few years, my family and I would forgo the celebrations as a whole and the holiday was just a sad reminder. 

Students painting at AAARCC's Lunar New Year celebration.Once I got to Purdue in 2018, I was eager for all the new experiences that college would hold. I was becoming friends with people from across the world and I could see the pride they felt in their culture. Campus and communities would come alive for different cultural holidays. Seeing how joyful people were to celebrate their holidays, I wished I had never rejected my Chinese heritage. 

Now, as my time at Purdue is coming to an end with graduation in May 2022, I am grateful for my experience at Purdue and how I was able to explore and fall back in love with Chinese culture. It felt like the perfect conclusion to my four years here to get to go to the Asian and Asian American Resource and Cultural Center’s (AAARCC) Lunar New Year celebration and write this article. 

Even more fitting, I was thrilled to be able to go to the AAARCC’s Tumpengan Preparation and Angklung with the Asian and Asian American Graduate Student Association and Indonesian Student Association. To have someone take the time to share their culture and teach you about their traditions is an honor that I will never pass up.

Lunar New Year 

Lunar New Year is a holiday celebrated by many Asian cultures during late January or February, tied to the lunar calendar. The Lunar New Year lasts for 15 days and is marked by the first new moon’s arrival. The holiday is celebrated by Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Taiwanese communities and each culture has its own special variations on the holiday. The Lunar New Year is a time of sharing meals with family and friends, honoring ancestors, cleaning and engaging in rituals to usher in a year of health, prosperity and abundance. 

Stepping into the Black and Gold Gym at the CoRec, I was met with tables filled with traditional holiday offerings. The Asian and Asian American Resource and Cultural Center handed out red envelopes to visitors, and Purdue Student Government’s table had rice crackers to enjoy. Other tables were hosted by various student organizations, like the Asian Student Union Board (ASUB), the Vietnamese Student Association (VSA) and chapters of the Multicultural Greek Council (MGC)

Throughout the day, different performers took the stage to share their talent, from dances by VariAsian and ADVNT, to songs performed by Rose Wang. Katherine Ho, singer of “Yellow” in the movie Crazy Rich Asians, took the stage to perform songs, including her cover of “Yellow.” Before beginning, Katherine spoke about her experiences growing up in a predominantly white area and how meaningful it was to see Asians represented on the big screen – a sentiment that many of us could relate to. 

Several students talking at the Lunar New Year event in the spring of 2022.

There were students, families and community members from Greater Lafayette, and it was amazing to see people from all different backgrounds come together and share in the joy of the holiday. Children and adults alike enjoyed shadow puppets, crafts and games. 

Overall, the day was a reminder that culture should be treasured and shared with pride. It was a beautiful showcase of many Asian cultures joining in celebration.

Indonesian Tumpeng and Angklung 

Tumpeng is an Indonesian dish prepared for celebrations and festivals to show gratitude. The rice, shaped into a cone, is the centerpiece of the dish and represents the mountains of Indonesia, where the spirits of ancestors and gods reside. The rice cone is surrounded by different Indonesian dishes and vegetables, such as ayam goreng (fried chicken), telur pindang (boiled marble egg), tempeh and more. As one of the participants pointed out, tumpeng is used in Indonesian culture much like how a cake is used in Western cultures. Tumpeng would appear for birthdays, festivals, Indonesian Independence Day, family or community gatherings and other celebratory occasions. 

The angklung is an instrument played traditionally by the Sundanese people in Indonesia. The instrument is made of bamboo tubes attached to a bamboo frame. Angklungs have been around for centuries and, like tumpeng, are traditionally played during parades, celebrations and rites of passage. Each angklung is only two to four pitches so it is very common for the instruments to be played in a group and for a single tone to be assigned to each instrument player. 

AAARCC’s Tumpengan Preparation and Angklung with the Asian and Asian American Graduate Student Association and Indonesian Student Association

The event began with a few words from Asian and Asian American Graduate Student Association (AAAGraSA) student leaders. 

“We want to introduce people here to Asian culture and collaboration, like preparing for events, and the voluntary spirit of achieving one goal for the whole community,” said Denny Putra, co-president of AAAGraSA.  

With that in mind, Wanti Syarief started her lesson on how to play the angklung. Syarief had traveled from Washington, D.C., where she is an instructor for Angklung for Senior by Rumpun Wangi Pasundan (AFOSE by RWP). The angklungs were distributed amongst the attendees in the AAARCC, with each person being responsible for a single note. Everyone learned how to properly hold the instrument and stumbled through a song. It was a show of community, as everyone came together to learn and play the song. Each person had a role and without them, the song would have been incomplete. 

After the angklung lesson, graduate student Mukhamad Supermanto shared information about tumpengan in his presentation “Tumpengan: When the Indonesian Tradition, Culinary and Art Intertwined.” His presentation emphasized the value of working together, an integral principle of Indonesian culture and many other Asian cultures. Participants were then able to prepare and decorate their own tumpengan together. 


These two events were a wonderful way to learn about new cultures and I encourage everyone to attend an event by one of these amazing organizations. There are so many events hosted for free that are open to all in the Purdue community by cultural centers and organizations across campus. 

To learn more about the Asian and Asian American Resource and Cultural Center, visit their website here or follow them on Instagram and Facebook

To learn more about other cultural centers at Purdue, visit this website and get connected.**

*Mary graduated in May 2022 and now works as a digital marketing and communications manager for Downtown Oak Park.

** If you are interested in learning more about other registered student organizations within the division, please visit Boilerlink.

Areas within Student Life foster inclusion and belonging by partnering with organizations and individuals across campus to promote a culture of student growth and self-understanding. 

Learn more about some of the Student Life areas that were involved in Mary's experience:

Student Activities and Organizations

Purdue Recreation and Wellness

Student Life Marketing

Student Life Student Employment