May is Asian, Pacific Islander, Desi and Asian American Heritage Month. Throughout the month, The Daily will highlight members of the university community who are of Asian, Pacific Islander, Desi and Asian American heritage to celebrate their accomplishments as members of the campus community and shed light on their experiences at CWRU.
Maya Fenty started her journey in the United States as an international student, so she knows how it can feel to not have a sense of belonging to a particular space and community.
Now, as an assistant director of student advancement in the Division of Student Success, Fenty strives to ensure students feel comfortable and safe to talk to her about any subject—a feat she accomplishes by opening up about her own cultural values and lived experiences.
“I enjoy [holding] a student-facing position because I have the opportunity to build relationships, truly get to know the students, and make a difference in their lives,” said Fenty, who began her role last year. “And this particular aspect brings meaning to my day.”
Fenty was raised in Turkmenistan, Central Asia. Ethnically, she is Turkmen, and she grew up speaking both Turkmen and Russian, as Turkmenistan was part of the former Soviet Union.
She came to the United States for the first time as an exchange student in high school for one year, during which time she lived in Asheville, North Carolina. Later, she returned to pursue her master’s and doctoral degrees at Kent State University before continuing her career stateside.
“There are not many Central Asians in Northeast Ohio, let alone Turkmens,” Fenty noted. “I had to train myself how to navigate the complex social and cultural spaces in order to nurture my sense of belonging to a particular community.”
Fenty believes Asian, Pacific Islander, Desi and Asian American (APIDAA) Heritage Month showcases that she isn’t alone in experiencing an arduous process such as negotiating identities to maintain social capital—and she hopes people will celebrate and uplift all APIDAA identities, experiences, histories and cultures.
Growing up, she never identified herself with a broader category: Asian. She understood that geographically, she grew up in Asia, but this category didn’t resonate with her until she left Turkmenistan.
“[Asian] covers such a broad range of individuals and their identities,” Fenty said. “Each person has multiple layers of personal and social identities and they can be idiosyncratic in nature, so the best way to go about getting to know someone is to simply ask questions.”
Now, as she and her husband are raising their two sons, Silas (4 years old) and Mekan (4 months old), Fenty is excited to teach them about their cultural heritage. She began sharing these lessons as soon as they were born.
Her husband picked the name of their first son, and she chose the name of their second.
“[I] gave him a Turkmen name which is Mekan,” she explained. “Mekan means ‘hearth, home, and stability’. I wanted him to have this Turkmen name to represent my journey with crossing cultural boundaries and finding a new home and sense of belonging in the United States with my multicultural family.”
Fenty is eager to involve their sons in the intricacies of her Turkmen culture as they grow older—such as not wearing shoes inside the house; preparing tea using an elegant tea set, paired with treats, to bond with family, friends and guests; and making steamed dumplings from scratch.
She vividly remembers the long and difficult process of making those dumplings, as each had to be manually shaped.
“Now I realize that those were the special moments where we used to bond over this task by laughing, making fun of each other, and discussing all kinds of topics,” she said. “I am planning to incorporate this type of bonding into my immediate family when my sons get older and I am ready for their complaints.”
Prior to joining Case Western Reserve, Fenty worked at her alma mater Kent State University, and also at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa as an education specialist. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in French and literature from Turkmen State University and studied abroad in France as well.
Learn about other APIDAA members of the CWRU community, and stay tuned to The Daily through May to meet even more.