When classical pianist Pauline Yang began performing in Europe, she noticed the audiences were filled with enthusiastic children and teens.
Hoping to learn ways to bolster similar interest among United States' youths, she started researching European government policies that may encourage classical music appreciation.
The 21-year-old’s sense of civic responsibility helped persuade Glamour magazine to select her in its 51st annual “Top 10 College Women Competition” for 2008. A panel of judges chose Yang among applicants in the United States and Canada.
“In Europe, [operatic soprano] Anna Netrebko is as big a star with the youth as Miley Cyrus is here,” said Yang, a senior with a double major in political science in USC College and piano performance in USC Thornton School of Music.
“As performers and avid supporters of the arts, one of our biggest responsibilities is to not just perform for our own sakes, but to fight to carry on the tradition of classical music, so it doesn’t die away."
Wendy Naugle, a Glamour deputy editor, said judges were “wowed” by Yang.
“What impressed us is that she didn’t give up on either dream,” Naugle said. “She found a way to pursue both politics — eventually interning for Senator Hillary Clinton — and music.”
Yang was born in 1986 — the year her parents arrived in the U.S. from Taiwan, where they had worked as tour guides for the government. Her brother, Jason, was born less than two years later.
“They came here with two suitcases,” Yang said of her parents. “It was really a rough time for them. We moved into 11 homes in two years around New York. My dad worked odd jobs late into the night just to put food on the table.”
Even though they struggled to make ends meet,Yang’s parents sent their daughter to piano lessons and Jason learned to play violin.
“My parents always put my brother and me first,” Yang said. “There were times when they had to collect coins from around the house to pay the toll to get us to our lessons.”
Growing up, Yang was also a competitive swimmer and recreational gymnast.
“I admire my parents for having the heart to bring up my brother and me the way they did,” Yang said, adding that Jason Yang is an international relations major in the College.
Settling in New Jersey, Pauline’s father works in retail sales at a Saks Fifth Avenue department store in New York City.
At age five, Yang began professional instruction in piano, winning her first international competition at seven. By 11, she was training at the Juilliard School in New York, winning Juilliard’s pre-college’s concerto and scholarship competitions in her first year.
Also at 11, she debuted with the Philadelphia Orchestra and soloed at Carnegie Hall.
While performing and competing throughout the world, she stayed committed to her high school work and remained active on campus. By her junior year, she was forced to decide between leading her school’s model United Nations program and preparing for the National Chopin Piano Competition — roughly the Olympic trials for piano. She postponed the competition until 2010.
Pursuing both politics and music, Yang is now balancing her activism with academia. Among many honors, she was named the 2006 USC Mortar Board Torch & Tassel Scholar, selected from the entire sophomore class for “outstanding scholarship, leadership and service.”
She is a two-time winner of the USC Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics Internship Scholarship Award, which funded an internship with Rep. Rush Holt (D-New Jersey) in Washington, D.C., and another with Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in New York City.
Currently, she serves on the National Women’s Political Caucus Board of Directors in Los Angeles. This past summer, she interned at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Government Information Office in Taiwan, where she researched ways to use cultural diplomacy to bridge international divides.
She also works at the Keck School of Medicine of USC as part of its Boundary Crossings team researching racial disparities in pediatric healthcare.
While maintaining a 3.88 GPA and practicing piano up to six hours a day, Yang is planning a trip to the Middle East in her role as an ambassador with Music in Me, a nonprofit group bringing music to children in war-torn areas.
After returning from the Glamour magazine ceremony in New York, where she and the other students received their awards and $3,000 gifts, Yang bubbled with enthusiasm.
She was inspired by her fellow winners and moved by the women professionals and leaders she met from across the globe.
“I was humbled to be in their presence,” she said.
The advice of Lisa Caputo, an executive for Citigroup and Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary, stayed with her.
“She reminded us of our social responsibility to bring young women along with us as we climb the ladder,” Yang said. “When you go up by yourself you leave a lot of young women behind.”
In the big picture, she plans to work toward improving the lives of people worldwide. Through her concert career as well as her schoolwork and activism, she’s a scholar of vastly different cultures and disciplines.
Quoting Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Christopher Rouse, she said, “It takes an interest in philosophy, history and world events to be a good musician.”
Yang performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor with the Thornton Symphony at Bovard Auditorium on Thursday, Oct. 23.