Oakland teen joins nation’s earliest wave of female Eagle Scouts
By Lou Fancher
Dispelling the notion that teenagers during the pandemic lost momentum, Olivia Chan set an ambitious calendar of achievements for herself in 2020.
Following a schedule that may have caused pandemonium for many teens had the 18-year-old Dimond district teen completing her final year at Oakland School for the Arts while studying piano, performing on clarinet with the OSA orchestra, playing shortstop or second base as an interdistrict transfer on the Skyline High School varsity softball team and applying for college with interest in neurobiology.
On top of all that, she also participated in Boy Scouts (now called Scouts BSA) to earn merit badges at record pace and mastered the use of saws, drills, power sanders and other large woodwork machinery while completing an Eagle Scout project to become one of the first wave of girls nationwide to earn Scouting’s highest rank.
Chan, a member of Scouts Troop 202, is the troop’s first female Eagle Scout and senior patrol leader in its history of more than 80 years. The troop’s Scouts are generally from Oakland’s Montclair and Rockridge districts and their surrounding areas, according to the troop’s website (troop202oakland.org). Before the pandemic, weekly troop meetings were held during the school year in the Oakland hills’ Montera Middle School.
To become an Eagle, a Scout must accumulate the required badges and complete a major project by age 18. Chan celebrated her 18th birthday in March 2021 and says in her “spare time,” she hiked and backpacked, took photos (“only a hobby, for fun,”) with her Nikon camera and tried to stay connected with friends during too many months sheltering in place and social distancing.
“Personally, the pandemic has been challenging,” she admits. “I have memory gaps, and school was hard because I had to do entirely online learning — my school never converted to hybrid learning. I haven’t seen my classmates in over a year, so it was hard to enjoy my last year. With Scouts, we had to resort to online Zoom meetings. I was elected to be senior patrol leader of the troop and had to lead the meetings.”
Chan’s Eagle project involved building 25 hand sanitizer stands.
“They were equipped with a bottle of hand sanitizer and an extra gallon of sanitizer for refills,” she says. “I supplied the stands to the Oakland Public Libraries, Operation Dignity in Emeryville (an organization to help the homeless) and the Berkeley Food & Housing Project’s various housing locations (a provider of homeless services and food distribution). I wanted to help alleviate the negative impact COVID-19 caused for my community.”
Chan said she selected those particular nonprofit groups because they help essential workers most in need or aim to increase the safety and health of lesser-served communities. Troop 202 Scoutmaster Mike Lewis says Chan’s focus and dedication were key to earning the rank of Eagle in a short time frame. Chan began building the hand sanitizers in late November and completed her project by mid-January. Many Boy Scouts spend up to four years working to achieve the rank.
“Because she could not join Scouts until her sophomore year, she had to work hard to keep up a steady pace of rank advancement, merit badges and leadership responsibility,” said Lewis. “She never chose an easy path, serving in our highest leadership positions and undertaking a very challenging Eagle project. The pandemic made things harder for her. For example, pools were closed, so she couldn’t earn the Swimming Merit Badge. She had to earn the Hiking Merit Badge instead, which meant hiking 37 miles in one weekend right before she turned 18.”
Chan’s father, George Chan, is a sales route representative for Aramark Corp., the food service, facilities, and uniform services provider. Her mother, Ivy Tom, was an image manager for an advertising and design firm before becoming a full-time mom after Chan’s brother, now age 12, was born. Proud of her heritage as a Chinese American and what she represents as “a young woman of color,” Chan says breaking gender barriers added extra motivation to participate in Boy Scouts.
“I loved to show that I was strong enough, that I was capable enough to take on a task. I thought with Scouts, I could show that I could work just as much or even more than a boy can, to show that I could earn and achieve what they could and to further empower other girls (to know) that they too have this capability.” Besides, she adds, “I didn’t want to fiddle with sparkly things. I wanted to go backpacking, throw tomahawks, shoot rifles at targets.”
With a dynamic group of 10 female Scouts, one of whom will begin her Eagle project within months, Lewis expresses only optimism for the troop’s future leadership. He said now that girls are welcome in Scouting, they along with boys have equal access to its benefits: exercises that build teamwork, responsibility and interpersonal understanding and activities that lead to personal growth.
“When you talk about someone like Olivia, you’re talking about someone who is courteous, kind, helpful and brave. Olivia had these qualities before she joined Scouts, but the troop gave her a place to demonstrate them day-in and day-out,” Lewis said.
This summer, Chan is looking forward to one more “High Adventure” in Scouting. A two-week backpacking trip at Philmont Scout Ranch near Colfax County, New Mexico, will include hiking to base camps carrying 30- to 40-pound packs, mountain and rock climbing, horseback riding and other activities. This fall, Chan will attend UC Davis to major in neurobiology, physiology and behavior. Curious about the brain and mind, excited by neurology’s breadth and opportunities for exploration, she says she thinks college “will be fascinating.”
Asked to describe how she and her generation define activism, Chan says, “It’s putting yourself out there and showing who you are and want to become. For me and other girls in Scouts, we work with others who are like-minded to show we are strong, skilled, capable. Activism is being true to who you are and spreading your mission to show other people your worth. It’s also not forcing people to convert their ideas, it’s just showing yourself and accepting people who don’t make the same choices.”