By Pat Pancioli

On Tuesday afternoons, strollers and car seats line the halls of the one-story office building. Inside the conference room, mothers and their babies meet for the free MomShare drop-in group. They’ve come to connect, learn, and share at this program in the Women’s Center of Southeastern Michigan. Alice Liao, the Center’s Communications Coordinator, and her one-year old daughter join them. This is a place Alice never expected to be. Born in a country half a world away, where boys were prized over girls, she had many plans for her life, but being a parent was not among them. Her journey of self-discovery and confidence in her worth has taken unexpected twists and turns and a lot of courage.

Hsaio-Wei (Alice’s Chinese name, which means “Sunrise-Rose”) emigrated from Taiwan at age twelve. In the patriarchal culture of her birth, she learned that “daughters are the ones you give away.” She came to Michigan with her father, an engineer, and her older brother while her mother stayed behind awaiting a visa. There was considerable debate in the family about allowing Alice to come to a culture viewed as nontraditional. But even as a pre-teen, Alice recognized she wanted to have the same opportunities as her brother. Her father became her ally and fought for her to come despite her mother’s reservations.

Alice came with no English skills, immediately entering the seventh grade. It was a tough transition. “In Taiwan, I was a normal kid with lots of friends. I went from that to being very alone,” she remembers. If there was an upside, it was that the experience made her closer to her brother. As latchkey kids, they had to rely on one another. But there were plenty of negatives, including struggling with the language and being bullied by “mean girls.” She told no one of the cruelty of her peers, not even her dad or her teachers. “I didn’t really have the words to explain it,” she recalls. But because she had lobbied hard to come to the States and didn’t want to fail, she figured she had to stick it out. So she did.

She found community in the kickboxing classes she took while her brother studied martial arts, but this ended when her mother decided it was not a ladylike pursuit. By high school, there were a few friends, mostly girls of Asian descent with whom there was some shared culture. She did well at school, where sometimes getting the gist of a subject was enough.

Alice applied to a dozen universities and was accepted by most. However, she knew there was a narrow range of college majors that her parents would find acceptable. Her grades were good, but not in the pre-med classes which were needed for her chosen profession. Convinced that she must follow the approved blueprint for her future, she struggled through three years. She ultimately graduated with a major in Asian cultures and languages and a minor in global change.

After a stint in the family business, she took a breather to work as a barista in Ann Arbor where one of her regulars was a professor in the U of M School of Social Work. She entered the program and focused on community organizing, preparing to work internationally. Following a short time at a Detroit agency, she began volunteering at the Women’s Center and soon was invited to join the staff to manage social media, community outreach, and fund development. She came to believe that it was more effective for her to be part of the community she was working to improve rather than being an outsider who imposed solutions in other nations.  

Alice feels fortunate to have a spouse who understands her job because he is also a social worker. He and Alice alternate childcare so she can work afternoons and evenings. In addition to daily Facebook and Instagram posts, Alice sends regular newsletters to the Center’s supporters, gives tours of the agency, mentors undergraduate interns from Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan, and acts as liaison with student organizations, local businesses, corporations, and partner agencies.

Alice now feels a seamless connection between her life experience and her chosen work. “How do we build up our confidence so we can see our own worth without needing someone else to affirm it for us?” She asks. “When women believe in themselves, life is just easier. We’re rarely the main character in our own story, so that’s what we teach women here at the Women’s Center. It’s so important to claim control of our lives. And when we do give ourselves up, we need to know we’re doing it, like being okay with the choices of giving up things as a mother.”

Alice feels like having a daughter has brought her full-circle. “It’s been a really long journey to be a strong and fierce woman — years of work in adulthood to unhear all the messages I got as a child.” Her daughter, a regular visitor to the Center, is truly being raised by a village of honorary aunts and grandmothers. Alice is doing work that she loves and in which she excels.

She is determined that her daughter will be raised knowing she is “wonderful, amazing, strong, and powerful from the start.” This is one promise Alice fully intends to keep.

The Women’s Center of Southeastern Michigan is a community nonprofit that provides financially accessible counseling, education, and advocacy. With services uniquely designed to help women in transition, the Center’s programs promote self-determination by building confidence, strengthening connections, and creating positive change. The Center serves clients who have insurance as well as those who don’t, who pay on a sliding fee scale.

The Center offers a safe and welcoming place for those who are in need of emotional support, are in transition because of a career change, divorce, or loss of a partner, or concerned about financial security. Programs include individual counseling, job coaching, support for new moms, women-only divorce groups, financial and family law education. Call them at 734.973.6779 or visit womenscentersemi.org. The Women’s Center of Southeastern Michigan is located on Ann Arbor’s west side at 510 S. Maple Road, and welcomes women, men, and gender-fluid individuals from Washtenaw, Wayne, Jackson, Lenawee, Monroe, and Oakland counties.

The Women’s Center will host its annual Swing into Spring event on Friday, May 10, 2019 at the Kensington Hotel in Ann Arbor. The community is invited for a fabulous evening of live music, dinner, auctions, wine, and jewelry pulls. Always a fun and lively event, it’s perfect for honoring the women in your life on Mother’s Day weekend!