Representation Matters

Like many collectivist cultures, Asian American Pacific Islander culture has a tradition of storytelling. Sharing stories and personal narratives helps to make meaning of one’s experiences and create space for communicating with one another. More importantly, stories can contribute to personal and professional transformation and empowerment.

May is Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, and in honor of the month, I want to share some of our AAPI stories. While many are aware that Saint Mary’s College is a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), it also has dual status as an Asian American Native American and Pacific Islander serving institution (AANAPISI), with 17.5 percent of its undergraduate students representing this population.

By sharing our stories, my hope is to bring to the forefront a snapshot of the experiences of AAPI or Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) professionals and students at Saint Mary’s. Our voices and experiences can often get drowned out in the national dialogue for equity and inclusion. The model minority myth continues to reinforce the notion that AAPIs are doing just fine, especially in higher education. Being AAPI, however, comes with unique strengths and challenges made even more complex when considering multiple, intersecting, and evolving identities.

Having grown up in St. Louis, Mo., I experienced the extreme opposite of living in California. Instead, I grew up in predominantly White neighborhoods and schools, and in a place associated today with racial divide and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, as a result of police shootings in Ferguson, just 20 miles from my home. While growing up, dialogue and discussions were focused on White and Black experiences. I didn’t see folks that looked like me (outside of my family), and professionally, there weren’t many, if any, staff, administrators, or professors that shared my experience. For me, coming into my Asian American self started in college in St. Louis and continued while in grad school in Boston. Yet, coming into my Filipina American professional self has strengthened living in California, where Filipinos are the largest Asian American subgroup.

The lack of AAPI representation I experienced in my personal and professional journey makes it important to me to be involved with, advocate for, and advance the stories of the AAPI community. This past March, Dean of Students Dr. Evette Castillo Clark, Dr. Jocelyn Surla-Banaria (University of California Office of the President), and I conducted a workshop at the Fly Pinays Leadership Summit, where we spoke to Bay Area Filipina college students about our earliest memories as a Filipina and messages that came with that narrative; how our Filipina identity helped and hindered us, both personally and professionally; and how our other identities intersect with our Filipina identity.

The connection to my AAPI identity has become stronger while living in California, and I often wonder who or what kind of leader I could have been if I was exposed earlier to individuals and leaders who looked like me. Would I have pursued the tenured professor route? Maybe I would have been a dancer or musician. Many times, I get caught in the “should haves” and “could haves”; I get caught in the dominant narrative of what I should be and what I should look like, inciting self-doubt and imposter syndrome. I question my collectivist and collaborative leadership style in a field where the dominant, directive leadership style is more valued consciously and subconsciously.

Through my work in student success, I have heard these similar stories and doubts from AAPI and other historically marginalized student populations. It’s not that I or the students cannot achieve any of these dominant and “other” identities. It is more about the self-doubt, the questioning, and othering that becomes a roadblock to accepting one’s full self.

Student Engagement and Academic Success coach Ardi Samonte '16 and Jasmine Sindico, Psychology '19, with Tracy Pascua Dea, assistant vice provost for student success.

Student Engagement and Academic Success coach Ardi Samonte ’16 and Jasmine Sindico, Psychology ’19, with Tracy Pascua Dea, assistant vice provost for student success.In April, I brought students and staff to a recent Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education (APAHE) conference in Oakland. It was validating to see that the experience offered a sense of inspiration for them.

“I personally witnessed these Asian Pacific Islander (API) leaders place their cultural identity in the forefront of why they lead, how it better informs their decisions, and what steps they took to get there,” offered SEAS coach Ardi Samonte ’16. “We [Asian Americans] sometimes get written off for a racial group of people that don’t need academic support, financial resources, and professional development. I believe representation is important because society, and other API people, need to see us as real human beings that aspire to be great in each of our unique individual’s heart passions.”

“Attending the APAHE Conference in April reminded me that I am not alone in my journey through higher education,” said psychology major Jasmine Sindico ’19. “I have never felt more understood or enlightened than sitting in a room with inspiring individuals. My favorite presentation from this conference was “Bahala Na’, From Trauma to Brilliance: Using Filipinx Intergenerational Wisdom to Guide Us.” As a psychology major, I was interested in the conversation on Filipino psychology. Overall, APAHE showed me how much I want to bring the traditions of community and resilience from my Filipino family into the work that I do.”

“I was overwhelmed by the diversity of life experiences woven within every speaker’s message,” said Joy Aburquez, MA C ’19 and HP coach/graduate intern. “It was inspiring to hear others share their stories as Asians in a historically underrepresented field and offer their unique perspectives. As I enter this workforce, I was comforted to know that there are others like me who have paved the way and now hold positions of great power in colleges and universities across the United States. Their voices are being heard, and I am confident my voice will have greater power and longevity.”

Being connected to APAHE the past few years has given me the opportunity to serve on the conference planning committee and to share my own story through research-based presentations and workshops. More importantly, I have been exposed to the narratives of Dr. Les Wong, president of San Francisco State, who is among the 1 percent of AAPI presidents in the United States; and Patrick Hayashi, who led all of the UC’s to sever ties with the National Merit Scholarship Program. Further through APAHE, I have gained mentor-leaders and friends.

My resiliency is founded in having grown up as OTHER. It is a resilience that is grounded in my ability to code switch and adapt in so many environments, amplifying the unique strengths I offer as an AAPI professional. As my journey continues with a support network that looks like me and shares my experience, I look forward to the next chapter of my narrative and my role as I advocate for and advance the stories of the AAPI community. Representation matters.

Learn more about Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month.

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