DEI programs are tools for student development, not political fodder

UC Berkeley Asian Pacific American Student Development program staff celebrated students and their accomplishments at an annual retreat. The program’s director, Eunice Kwon, said that DEI work is innately beneficial in producing student leadership.

States across the country are seeking to eliminate public education funding for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs and research in campaigns led by politicians who openly devalue and criticize DEI work as part of a "woke"" agenda.

But for more than a decade, Lisa Tsuchitani and Eunice Kwon have run DEI programs and taught courses at UC Berkeley that support Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students. And they say they’ll continue striving for an inclusive campus climate.

Eunice Kwon, second from right, with UC Berkeley’s Asian Pacific American Student Development program staff.

"In essence, we’re giving underrepresented students the resources to become more grounded in their identity and (to) have opportunities to connect with peers who have similar experiences," said Kwon, director of Berkeley’s Asian Pacific American Student Development program. "This work, unfortunately, has been so hyper-politicized it is not seen for what it truly is."

Kwon also co-led a committee that helped Berkeley obtain federal designation last month as an Asian American Pacific Islander-serving institution. This title gave the campus official status as a minority-serving institution for the first time. Berkeley also is pursuing designation as a Hispanic-serving institution and as an

Tsuchitani, a Berkeley alumna and faculty member in the Asian American Studies Program of the Department of Ethnic Studies, will serve as inaugural Director of Engagement for Berkeley’s Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Thriving Strategy. She will spend the next year partnering with Kwon and other campus leaders to create a vision and framework that will address the ongoing challenges experienced by Berkeley’s AAPI student, staff, and faculty.

Students and staff celebrate the 50th anniversary of UC Berkeley’s Asian American and Asian Diasporas Studies program with Lisa Tsuchitani, third from right.

"Historically, this work has not been valued," said Tsuchitani. "But as long as students feel like this work is meaningful to them - that they feel seen, heard, and respected - that’s enough for me to remain committed to these efforts."

Berkeley News spoke with the pair recently about the cultural and historical complexities within the AAPI community and how the greater Berkeley community can help create a more inclusive campus climate for all.

Berkeley News: Lisa, you have quite the task of developing a framework and strategy for AAPI students, staff and faculty to thrive on campus. Where do you start?

Lisa Tsuchitani: This institutional recognition of and commitment to addressing AAPI community needs is historically significant for our campus.

Efforts to visibilize these complex and diverse needs of AAPI undergraduate and graduate students, staff and faculty on our campus are not new, however. One of the first Asian American studies programs in the nation was created here in 1969, followed by the appointment of the first advisory committee on Asian American affairs by Chancellor Heyman in 1987, and the 2001 publication of "Visibility and Marginality: Asian Pacific Americans at Berkeley."

Members of UC Berkeley’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Standing Committee consist of students, staff and faculty.

In 2019, we created the Asian American and Pacific Islander Standing Committee, an inaugural, permanent advisory body to the chancellor and her cabinet on AAPI issues. In 2021, the committee released a report, "Twenty Years Later: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders at UC Berkeley," which concluded that the challenges facing AAPI communities at UC Berkeley have not significantly changed.

More specifically, there is a persistent decline in AAPI staff representation in managerial/supervisory roles. And our faculty still do not reflect our AAPI student body - i.e., we still do not have any Pacific Islander-identifying Academic Senate faculty on campus.

This history is an important foundation for our work moving forward.

Eunice, working directly with AAPI students as Asian Pacific American Student program director, what challenges do they face on campus that people may not know about?

Eunice Kwon: There is a perceived perception that Asian Americans on this campus are overrepresented, and that they are doing well academically. But actually, when we break it down, we see that Hmong, Lao and other Asian communities are very underrepresented on this campus in relation to California’s demographics.

They also have the highest percentage of low-income students in their populations. We see a lot of programs on this campus that offer scholarships for federally-designated underrepresented minorities, and right now that doesn’t include those student populations, even though they have all of the factors that signify they need that support.

Pacific Islander students are included under the AAPI umbrella, but their experiences are often invisiblized and left out of the conversation altogether.

It’s really important for faculty and staff to be aware of that, because there is a false perception around which students need support, and that can be informed by the way some AAPI students are racialized.

In this work, how can we address the nuances that exist within the AAPI community?

Kwon: The term Asian American is a political and coalitional project that started here at Berkeley in the 1960s. And I think that is true now of the terms AAPI or Asian Pacific American (APA). But when people are using those terms to identify people, or a culture, it can flatten or erase so many people and communities within those terms - homogenizing them.

AAPI is such a diverse and wide-ranging umbrella term. And from my experience, most of the AAPI students that we have coming to Berkeley don’t identify as AAPI, they identify with their specific ethnic groups.

When we think about AAPI work and advocacy, we have to always make sure that we’re building opportunities for different voices and cultures to reach agreements together. And to be very intentional and hyper-specific about the programming we provide, and when we provide it.

The Asian Pacific American Student Development office, partnered with the community non-profit Empowering Pacific Islander Communities (EPIC) a few years ago to host a four-day summer intensive program called PILOT - Pacific Islander Leaders of Tomorrow, where students learned about advocacy and identity.

Tsuchitani: This work is a reflection of our broader commitment as an institution to principles of community that recognize the intrinsic relationship between diversity and excellence in all of our endeavors. Our federal designation as an Asian American Pacific Islander-serving institution also meets one of President Drake’s priorities for the UC system - of expanding opportunity and excellence for all of our students.

This designation - and becoming an AAPI Thriving institution , more broadly speaking - is a reminder of our obligation to serve the future leaders of this state and of the world. I believe this responsibility is a collective one and look forward to collaborating across communities, as well as academic and administrative programs, departments and divisions, to realize a campus climate where everyone can feel safe, included and valued.

How should Berkeley’s campus community stay engaged in this work moving forward?

Kwon: The idea that everybody benefits from learning about all of our country’s histories is really under attack right now. And so being able to support ethnic studies, African American studies, Asian American studies in your communities is going to ultimately be really helpful.

It supports the values and the reasons behind why we’re doing this work.

More specifically, I think that in our country, and even on our own campus, we still really default to this Black-white binary understanding of race and history. And I think critical ethnic studies is really about being able to think critically and understand the nuances and contradictions and the histories and all of the things in between.

Pushing yourself to understand people different from yourself is an important part of the work.

In May 2022, Kwon celebrated with new alumna Sara Olsen, and Angel Halafihi, the Pacific Islander Initiation program manager. Pacific Islanders make up around 0.1% of the campus population.

Tsuchitani: Berkeley is a large and intimidating campus where making connections and sustaining relationships can be challenging. The pandemic, in many ways, complicated and hindered our abilities to stay connected with one another. I hope to create spaces for communities to share their hopes and visions for what thriving can look like and mean for our campus.

Our federal designation as an Asian American Pacific Islander-serving institution is one way our campus can strengthen its commitment to becoming an AAPI Thriving institution. Being designated in this way means that we are now eligible to apply for competitive federal funds to improve and expand the ways we serve AAPI populations.

I am excited about this opportunity to reimagine academic, programmatic and research opportunities for AAPI campus communities in our collective pursuit of greater educational access and equity at Berkeley.

By Ivan Natividad

View all articles by Ivan Natividad