Aaron Fan Feng ’14 is a graphic designer at Compass, a high-end real estate brokerage that trades in luxury and the promise of guiding buyers home. He’s based at the Fifth Avenue office, where he works on print and digital pieces with marketing and product managers and agents throughout the design cycle. For all his self-professed shyness and diligence, the fact that Feng walks through Compass’s doors five days a week points to his secret status as a bit of a rebel.
Growing up in China near Chengdu, the Sichuan capital, Feng felt the weight of his parents’ plans for him to study business. They owned a hardware store and imagined a similar future for their only child. Feng loved art, though, and he wanted to be different from what was expected.
If you get a high score on China’s College Entrance Exam, Feng says, they think you’re smart; if you don’t, they think there’s no hope. That test determines one’s entire future, and he detested that judgment. Since he scored high on the test, he tried to honor his parents’ wishes and studied business for a year at a vocational college, but he felt like he was drowning. Business held no appeal. “I could feel that my father was giving up on me,” Feng said. “I told my mother I should make the move to America.” He also told her he’d keep studying business.
Feng landed at Colby-Sawyer, where he found the independence and freedom for which he’d yearned. His Friendship Family was vital to his transition to living in America, and in his first semester, he met professors who became friends and pulled him through the shocking winter. He worked in the dining hall and, perhaps most important, he took his first art class.
“Drawing Foundations with Bert [Yarborough] interested me a lot, and when I took graphic design classes with Hilary [Walrod], I decided once and for all just to do what I wanted to do,” Feng related. “Colby-Sawyer was the turning point of my life. I realized who I really am and what I really should be. I learned to embrace myself rather than hide in a shell and be what my parents wanted me to be. I found the real me at Colby-Sawyer.”
Feng declared himself a graphic design major. Eventually, he told his parents and then set about proving to them he’d made the right decision. He collected the college’s Susan C. Harp Honorable Mention Award for Graphic Design, and faculty selected him to receive the Baccalaureate Award for excellence within his major. After graduation, Feng moved to New York City and began a four-month job search that ended at Compass. He got the offer just in time: With only days until his visa expired, he was looking for a plane ticket home.
“Design-wise, I was ready to work,” Feng said. “I still have a lot of things to learn, but my coworkers are nice, and they teach me, too.”
With a comfortable apartment in Brooklyn a block from the East River and a steady job, Feng’s made peace with his parents’ expectations and is thinking about the future.
“Now, when people ask my parents where I am, they say I’m a graphic designer in New York City, and the reaction is surprise. They’ll be so happy for my parents and say, ‘Oh, wow, that’s amazing; it’s like heaven.’ My parents are very proud of me now.”
Feng hopes for promotions that will lead him up the ladder to the role of creative director. He also wants to save for a house and get his green card, though he’s learned to expect surprises.
“You never know what you’re going to do in your life until you explore all the options. This is one of the benefits of a liberal arts education: It’s full of surprises, and you only understand it when you get to experience it,” said Feng. “But it’s important to do your best and never give up. Eventually, there’ll be something that’ll match with you. Five years ago, I’d never have imagined myself working in Manhattan and living in Brooklyn. I never imagined I’d call this place home.”