Elvin Chan believes in the power of teamwork

7/30/13 Elvin Chan

Elvin Chan, assistant director of the Asian American Resource and Cultural Center, manages the Pyro Paddlers, UIC’s dragon boat racing team. Photo: Joshua Clark/UIC Photo Services (click on image for larger file size)

Elvin Chan keeps the UIC folks who paddle a dragon boat afloat.

Chan, assistant director of the Asian American Resource and Cultural Center, has been manager of the Pyro Paddlers since the team formed in 2008.

“The opportunity came to me as part of my work with our community outreach programs, connecting students, faculty and staff with the Asian community in Chicago,” he said.

The colorful wooden boats, carved to look like dragons, carry 21 people, 18 of them paddlers.

The others are a drummer, who pounds a drum to set the pace for paddlers; a flag catcher, perched atop the front of the boat to grab a flag at race’s end to time the boat’s run; and an official of the American Dragon Boat Association, who sits in the stern and steers.

UIC is a member of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, through the Office of External Affairs.

Chinatown hosts the granddaddy of all local dragon boat races — the Chicago Dragon Boat Race for Literacy, staged annually in Ping Tom Park — and back in ’08, UIC was invited to field a team of paddlers.

Chan put out the call to students, faculty, staff and alumni, and the Pyro Paddlers were off to the races.

It’s a perfect name for the team, considering that UIC sports teams are the Flames and the school mascot is Sparky D. Dragon.

In their first competition, the paddlers finished 17th out of 28 teams. In 2011, the team won first place in its division at the Pride of the Fox Riverfest in St. Charles.

They were moved up to first division and this year placed seventh.

“Some paddlers said, ‘Maybe if we paddled slower, we could be in the easier division and bring home a trophy,’ but that was said mostly in jest,” Chan said.

As team manager, “I’m in charge of communication with the paddlers, recruitment, getting the team signed up for races, scheduling practices and carpooling,” Chan said.

He drives paddlers to races in a UIC van and takes care of refreshments and lunches.

“I try to provide the team history and institutional memory,” he said, adding that he has been needed in the boat only twice, filling in as drummer and flag catcher.

Team co-captains this year are undergrad Kevin Chiem and graduate student Jenny Korn.

“I break impasses,” Chan said.

The two interlinked essentials of a good dragon boat race are pace and coordination, Chan said.

“You need to find a pace that is sustainable,” he said. “If you push too hard, the team starts breaking out of sync. You can be beaten by a team that is individually weaker, but more coordinated.”

In Chan’s work at the Asian American Resource and Cultural Center, “half my job is taking care of administrative functions — keeping the office running,” he said.

“The other half is community outreach and campus outreach programs,” helping students connect with Chicago’s Asian community and Asian groups at UIC.

Chan grew up in the Buffalo, N.Y., suburb of Williamsville. He studied aerospace engineering at the University of Buffalo (bachelor’s degree) and University of Texas at Austin (master’s).

He worked for NASA in Houston from 1994 to 1996, when he decided to change careers, earning a second master’s — in higher education administration — at Northwestern University in 1997.

He joined the Northwestern Undergraduate Leadership Program, then worked for the Chicago-based Asian Community Online Network.

Chan became a founding staff member of the UIC Asian American center in 2005. He’s since evolved from assistant to the director to assistant director.

Chan’s wife, Joanna Su, works in a federally funded home visiting program that serves at-risk families in six communities across the state.

They live in Rogers Park with their 3-year-old daughter, Erin.

Chan spends five or six hours a week mountain- and road biking. About once a month, at his home, he and friends play Settlers of Catan or other strategy-based board games.

“People who know me call me a foodie,” he said. “I’m always chasing down culinary exploits in Chicago.”


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