Ashley Li is both an artist and a scientist.
When the fourth-year neuroscience and psychology student puts her pen to the page, what’s revealed sets her mind at ease and brings inspiration to those around her. A writer since she was young, Ashley’s passion for the craft amidst a course load of research allowed her to stand out as an applicant for this year’s Student-Writer-in-Residence (SWiR).
“We were very impressed with [Ashley’s] writing portfolio,” Professor Mary Helen McMurran, vice-chair of the department of English and writing studies, commented. “[We are] delighted to have a student from neuroscience who will help bridge and connect creative writers from the different faculties at Western.”
Which is precisely what Ashley intends to do with the position.
This innovative role – unique in North America – was developed in 2013 by the University Students’ Council and the department of English and writing studies. The goal of the program is to provide support for an accomplished undergraduate writer while allowing other students across campus to benefit from the writer’s creativity, expertise and organizational skills. Each year, Professor McMurran strikes an ad-hoc committee with another member of the faculty and the USC’s VP of student support and programing to select the new SWiR.
As a science student, Ashley arrived at Western four years ago faced with a predetermined course load and no time for creative practice. Now having found a balance, she’s determined to help others do the same.
“I saw the opportunity for Student-Writer-in-Residence as another way for me to contribute to the writing community at Western and bring a side of diversity in. I know a lot of students who are not in English or the arts like myself, and it feels like either we don’t know about the resources available to us, or it’s intimidating to go to an event that’s marketed for English students. I want to try and bring an interdisciplinary and inclusive approach to the position this year.”
Ashley’s contribution to the writing community began three years ago where, as a first year, she discovered a gap in the USC Clubs system. With no dedicated writing club available to all students, Ashley co-founded the Spoken Word Society with a friend. What began as a poetry club would gradually balloon into an all-encompassing creative writing community that was met with spectacular feedback. “Our peers would reach out to us saying, ‘Hey, this is just what I needed.’ So many people who felt isolated from their creative outlets were now able to find community within the Spoken Word Society.” For many, it acted as the much-needed motivation to get inspired again.
The success of the club and the community it brought her pushed Ashley to further help both herself and her peers. Doubtful of her ability as a science student to succeed in the role of SWiR, Ashley almost missed the application deadline. “Then I had a conversation with the outgoing writer, Courtney,” she shared. “She sat me down and really inspired me with her own stories about the experience. I applied less than an hour before the deadline.” Ashley also made it a point to speak to past SWiR who were not from arts & humanities, finding that the psychology and mathematics graduates each had a similar goal as her – to unite the faculties and educate students about on-campus resources.
Ashley, who writes poetry and short fiction, tries to incorporate mental wellness into everything she does at Western. In her personal studies, Ashley looks at narrative medicine and the healing power of art therapy. She would love to run a journaling workshop to help others find their own healing in writing.
More pressing than that is her desire to help others find their voices. As someone who struggles with her confidence in writing from time to time, Ashley is intent on using her platform to “promote diversity, promote equity, and raise awareness… Instead of running an event and talking about how important these things are, I want to empower the people who tell those stories and give them a platform and a microphone.” The support of her peers and professors – namely Dr. Aaron Schneider of her second-year writing course – are among those Ashley thanks for helping her find her own voice.
Ashley wants to use this opportunity and support to continue experimenting with her writing. From poetry to short fiction to creative non-fiction, Ashley believes that by enhancing her connection to her more emotional side, she can also improve her abilities as a scientist. “I think writing makes me a better researcher and a better health-care worker. It makes a really big difference in the way I can empathize with the people around me.”
Ashley sees a future in which she can blend psychology, behavioural neuroscience, and being a published writer.
Warm and kind, this year’s Student-Writer-in-Residence wants everyone to know that they can approach her about – quite literally – anything. “Whether it’s your favourite book, your own manuscript, or a set of lyrics for the next rap top hit – just come by for a chat!”