By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications
UCLA International Institute, May 16, 2022 — Isabel Wong arrived at UCLA in 2018 already intending to major in global studies.
Born in California to parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong, Wong grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis. She’s been an avid gamer and action figure collector since she was young, favoring action and choice-based role-playing games (for example, Mario Kart, Pokémon, Fire Emblem, Animal Crossing, Dragon Age, Mass Effect). Together with her family, she began attending and volunteering at the Comic-Con International convention in San Diego while in high school.
Wong wanted to return to the West Coast for college because her extended family remained in the Bay Area. Her decision on a college was cemented when she attended Bruin Day for out-of-state students. “Seeing the campus and how lively it was made me fall in love with UCLA. I love being a Bruin and my school pride started there,” she says.
Not only did Wong meet and hit it off that day with Tara Prescott-Johnson — an English literature Ph.D. and continuing lecturer in UCLA’s Writing Programs (who later became her thesis advisor) — she early identified global studies as her major.
Trial and error hones career prospects, leads to passionate hobby
Like many Bruins, Wong arrived on campus without friends. She immediately set about participating in a broad range of student associations and exploring different minors in hopes of finding like-minded friends, identifying possible career paths and having fun.
Her first discovery proved to be an enduring passion. During week zero, the UCLA Archery Club holds an annual festival where students are invited to try out a bow and arrow. “I was literally walking to class and saw 50 targets out on the intramural field. And I thought, ‘Wow, that that seems really cool, I should try that.’ I loved it!” she recounts.
She has since served as treasurer, vice president and now president of the archery club, became a coach and has competed regularly in team and mixed-team competitions.
UCLA Archery Club, fall 2021. Wong is in second row, third from right. (Source: UCLA Archery Club.)
“What I love about our club is that we’re really beginner-friendly and supportive — we’ll teach you everything you need to know,” she says.
Wong’s search for the right minor taught her that business economics and entrepreneurship weren’t the right fit for her. When her global studies advisor recommended the professional writing minor, however, she found what she was looking for.
“The writing minor complimented the global studies major perfectly. Honestly, it was one of the best decisions I’ve made on this campus,” she relates.
Lucky timing and well-earned internships
Wong has benefited from unbelievably good timing at UCLA, largely because she fulfilled several academic requirements ahead of time. For example, she attended a required travel study program the summer after her freshman year, traveling to Shanghai for the “Consequences of the New Market Economy” program in 2019. Some eight months later, all such programs were suspended for two summers.
When UCLA students began taking their classes remotely in her junior year, Wong decided to write her senior thesis a year early. “I decided that if I was going to sit in my room, I might as well do my thesis,” she said. “I’m really happy that I did it last year, because now I can focus on being on campus and with my club.”
Her thesis, “Winds of Otaku: Anime Conventions as Forums of Globalization,” for which she created and analyzed a database of anime conventions held worldwide from 1975 through 2020, won the UCLA College Dean’s Prize at Undergraduate Research Week in 2021. (See her video presentation.)
While Wong was studying and writing at home, she was also doing online marketing internships at video game company Nintendo, toymaker Hasbro and finally, interactive entertainment developer PlayStation.
Her initial efforts to find an internship in the entertainment industry resulted in many rejections — except from Nintendo. Wong became the company’s first-ever social media marketing intern in summer 2020, where she helped design and launch an Instagram lifestyle channel (“Nintendo Inspired”) aimed at women and other communities under-represented in gaming.
“That was a project I was personally really fond of because I want to bring more women into gaming, as the industry tend to be very male dominated,” she remarks.
In winter and spring 2021, Wong interned at Hasbro, the second-largest toy manufacturer in the U.S. and producer of the kind of (game-based) action figures that Wong collects.
“It was a really valuable learning opportunity that gave me a broader marketing perspective. We focused more on the brand as a whole and worked on different lines and categories of toys.” In the end, Wong decided she preferred the faster-paced world of gaming to the retail industry, and sought out her next internship at PlayStation in summer 2021.
There, she worked with territory liaisons from different world regions to help develop an international marketing strategy for the “MLB The Show 2022” game. “I think interning at PlayStation was the first time I really felt able to use my global studies background in my work environment,” she remarks.
In her final undergraduate year, Wong won a “Girls for Gaming Scholarship” and became a D.I.C.E. (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain) Scholar of the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences, the major professional association of the interactive entertainment industry.
In addition to $2,500 in tuition support, the scholarship included a mentorship program and an all-expenses paid trip to the annual AIAS summit in Las Vegas in February 2022. Wong and the D.I.C.E. Scholar cohorts of both 2020 and 2021 — which included art designers, narrative writers, technology experts, marketing specialists and others — met in person at the summit, participated in professional development workshops and networked with industry leaders.
“It was the first time that I was part of a group of high-caliber, amazing, caring people in my same demographic. It was a life-changing experience.”
Global studies lay foundation for international marketing
Wong’s educational journey at UCLA has allowed her to follow her passions while building knowledge of the world and concrete skills in writing, research and foreign languages.
“I knew I wanted to do something in business, but I wasn’t interested in traditional finance or investment banking. I felt global studies was interdisciplinary enough that you could create your own major, but with guideposts,” says Wong. (The major entails a core set of required courses, together with a choice of electives in a broad array of disciplines.)
“Even if the major was something I wouldn’t use in my day-to-day life, I thought that I would at least understand people and the world around me better, and not have such a narrow frame of mind,” she says.
In fact, her favorite global studies courses (“Governance and Conflict” and “War and Diplomacy,” both taught by International Institute faculty member Eric Min) addressed the institutional structure and functioning of the current international system — a sphere in which Wong doesn’t intend to work.
“At its core, global studies is about connection. In business, that’s extremely important,” she says.
“But in other, more subtle ways, when you meet a person, you realize that their life experience is informed by different perspectives. Learning how to take a step out of my shoes and make an effort to understand somebody else has been really impactful and helpful, no matter where I go in the future.”
Having grown up speaking Cantonese at home, Wong arrived at UCLA already proficient in Spanish thanks to a Spanish immersion program in primary and secondary school. She then studied Japanese — the language of anime and manga — for two years at UCLA. (If you are picturing Wong striding into a Japanese-language anime with a bow and arrow, you are not alone!)
Isabel Wong at an archery competition. (Photo provided by Ms. Wong.)
Her advice for aspiring global studies students? “Number one, be yourself. Number two, advocate for yourself. You need to embrace who you are and be okay with that, then make the effort to explore and figure out what you want to do. At a public university like UCLA, there are so many opportunities, but you need to the one proactively finding them.”
Wong also urges incoming students to learn to stand up for themselves in a polite way and become confident in their skills and experience. Finally, she says, “Don’t compare yourself to anyone. Be confident in who you are and know that you matter!”