Reflecting on a Leadership Development Summit for Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) in Higher Education at UC Berkeley

Illustrations of three people of AANHPI heritage

As May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (WHIAANHPI) and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) co-hosted a leadership development summit on April 2 in anticipation. The summit brought together leaders in higher education, including university, college, and community college administrators, students, educators, researchers, and state and federal policymakers to listen and to discuss AANHPI’s myriad experiences, from progress to challenges, in higher education. I was honored to participate in this summit at the University of California, Berkeley to learn from and connect with many colleagues from social work, the environmental protection agency, and libraries. Madam Vice President Kamala Harris could not attend in person but shared her remarks with a WHIAANHPI representative who communicated Harris’s well wishes in recognizing our work in making a difference in lifelong learning and addressing disparities for AANHPI youths.

Photo of a woman speaking on stage at a leadership summit on AANHPI experiences in higher education.
Caroline Goon, Director of External Affairs of the WHIAANHPI giving opening remarks at summit in University of California Berkeley

A fireside conversation took place with AANHPI presidents based at community colleges, colleges, and universities across the country, during which they openly shared their struggles to conform to monoculture within higher education. One person explained how there were sacrifices to be made, like changing one’s heritage name to an English-sounding name. Another panelist shared that during an interview as a candidate for a presidential role, they asked the search committee, “Are you prepared for radical change?” It stunned the search committee members into silence. Another president remarked how important it is to acculturate—the process of adopting or adapting new cultures—but to remember at the same time to not give up one’s authentic selves and values in a leadership role.

During break-out sessions, OPM facilitators addressed topics like microaggressions to mental health and wellness experiences among AANHPI communities. One of the most significant yet silent issues is the mental health and wellness of AANHPI youths. According to a Change Insight report from January 2024, recent statistics reveal that 77 percent of the estimated 2.6 million AANHPIs who met the criteria for a mental health problem did not receive treatment in 2021.1 Several reasons may explain why people do not seek support: in many communities there is a stigma attached to talking about mental health issues; there is still a lack of access to wellness resources, whether that is financial or limited support; there is also a lack of knowledge, language, or experience to describe or name what people are experiencing. There needs to be more community building, understanding, and awareness of this silent stigma and intentional outreach to engage with AANHPI youths experiencing mental health challenges.

When it comes to microaggressions—subtle or not-so-subtle instances of racism, homophobia, sexism, and other biases through gestures and interactions—I learned of the term “micro-connections” at the summit, which are ways for observers, bystanders, and allies to disrupt microaggressions when we see them happening through “micro-interventions.” For instance, micro-affirmations recognize and affirm another person’s feelings or identities when challenged. When microaggressions happen systematically, it is difficult to address at an individual level. Rather, the commitment and involvement of leadership is needed. The facilitator also cited the four stages of psychological safety,2 developed by author and researcher Dr. Timothy R. Clark as a framework to more comprehensively understand all that psychological safety encompasses. These stages are:

  • Inclusion Safety – members feel safe belonging to a group or a team and feel comfortable and present.
  • Learner Safety – members feel safe that they can learn through asking questions; they can experiment, make, and admit to mistakes, and seek help when needed.
  • Contributor Safety – members feel safe that they can contribute their ideas without fear of repercussion or embarrassment; they are vulnerable to share their thoughts.
  • Challenger Safety – members feel safe to question other members’ ideas or to offer suggestions or changes to the plans.

The breakdown of psychological safety in these phases might help us understand how we engage in groups, teams, departments, or in one-on-one interactions.

The summit also centered on the role of the Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions Program (AANAPISI) from the U.S. Department of Education in advancing and elevating AANHPI experiences in higher education. As stated on the program’s webpage under “FAQs”: “The AANAPISI program provides discretionary grants to eligible institutions of higher education (IHEs) to enable them to improve their academic quality, increase their self-sufficiency, and strengthen their capacity to make a substantial contribution to the higher education resources of the Nation.”3

There was a lively panel discussion from AANHPI higher education leaders reflecting on how populations have changed, and by extension how languages and social identities have changed, since 2007 when the AANAPISI program started. To close the achievement gaps of Native Hawaiians, one chancellor focused on Native Hawaiian pedagogy and practice, such as integrating stories, purposes, and functions to knowledge and connecting learners back to natural phenomena. However, COVID-19 further impacted Native Hawaiian students, who experienced barriers to education, such as a lack of financial resources, childcare, and academic preparedness. Legislation and federal funding have helped, but sustaining this support required the combined effort of a community of educators, student services colleagues, and peer students to support one another in the community. A community college administrator described how funding is inequitable among different institutions, underscoring the need to recognize that the historical legacies of AANAPISI programs may vary from institution to institution.

These conversations help us reframe, understand, and see the diverse experiences of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. Their experiences are not singular nor are they a monolith. Instead, we need to acknowledge and recognize the diversity as well as the discrepancy of services and resources among different groups and different types of institutions, from universities to community colleges, and how that may impact learners and educators who identify as AANHPI.

AANHPI Heritage Month is celebrated every May in the United States. However, AANHPI communities are not fully represented in higher education leadership roles nor do they have equitable learning support and opportunities. Hence, this summit allowed us to celebrate and reflect on our progress and identify where we need to continue focusing. 

References:

1. David Li et al. “Community Counts: Assessing Social Drivers of Health among Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders,” Change Insight, (2024): 18, https://caslservice.org/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/Change-InSight-FULL-Report-2024.pdf.

2. Timothy R. Clark, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2020).

3. “Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions Program,” U.S. Department of Education, last modified March 15, 2024, https://www2.ed.gov/programs/aanapi/index.html.

Headshot of Ray Pun

About the author:

Ray Pun (he/him) is the academic and research librarian at the Alder Graduate School of Education, a teacher’s residency program in California.

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.