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Spotlight on 4 AAPI Professionals Making an Impact on Higher Education

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we're shining a spotlight on some amazing AAPI educators working in higher education today.

Students of Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage are among the fastest-growing student populations at colleges and universities. However, a 2018 study by the National Center for Education Statistics shows only 12% of faculty at degree-granting post-secondary institutions were of AAPI heritage. In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we talked to several AAPI professionals about their careers in higher education and asked for words of encouragement for students conducting the college search and admission process. 

Dr. S. David Wu, President of Baruch College at City University of New York

Dr. S. David Wu first visited New York City from his native home of Taiwan as an international student. Over 40 years later, Wu returned to the city when he became president of the City University of New York’s Baruch College. Education was not Wu’s first career choice. He holds both an MS and PhD from Pennsylvania State University and began his professional life as a systems engineer. He decided to “give teaching a try” at the urging of a former academic mentor. “Later, when I got into administration, my systems engineering background was very helpful,” he says. “Education is a large, complex system, so I could apply my skill sets.”

Wu has now been in academia for over 35 years. He began his tenure as Baruch’s president on July 1, 2020—at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Wu’s first order of business was to create a sense of calm and determine how to pivot and move education online—just one example of the strategic planning responsibilities in the job description. Wu’s job has two main parts: one visionary and one operational. On the operational side, Wu ultimately runs the college. “On the visionary side, a college has a specific mission,” he explains. “In the case of Baruch, our mission is to achieve academic excellence but to also reach out to students from diverse backgrounds who may or may not have the opportunity to get a college education. How do we make the right kind of investment?”

When it comes to students making the right investment in their futures, Wu offers this advice: “First, the academic quality and faculty of an institution are incredibly important. You come to college to stretch and challenge your mind; academic rigor is critical. Then, because you don’t just learn from the faculty but from your peers, get a feel for the student body.” Wu praises Baruch’s vibrant campus environment as a classroom in its own right. “We have one of the most diverse student populations in the country—the sheer diversity of the students is really the [biggest] source of learning,” he says. “We’re also fortunate to have incredibly talented faculty, not just in terms of their academic qualifications—they are practicing professionals. We sit between the United Nations and Wall Street. Many of them are working professionals in various sectors.”   

Related: Great Colleges and Universities for Education in the Northeast and South

Dr. Helene Lee, Associate Professor of Sociology at Dickinson College

Dr. Helene Lee tells her students she came to the sociology field “as a late bloomer and through the back door.” She majored in Psychology as an undergraduate at Cornell University, but her first job post-graduation ultimately changed her life’s course. “I did a program called Teach for America,” she says. “It was a pivotal experience in which I, as an Asian American, was suddenly immersed in a rural town in Louisiana about 45 minutes outside of New Orleans and teaching an early elementary special education class.” Lee saw firsthand many of the racial and socioeconomic inequalities she’d previously only learned about in the classroom. “I also realized that while I was drawn to teaching as a profession, my abilities were not well suited for the five- to eight-year-old range!” she says. “I turned to sociology as a way to make sense of that experience as well as broader questions around other identities like immigrant status, race/ethnicity, and gender.”

Lee chose education after working as a graduate teaching assistant and instructor at University of California, Santa Barbara. “I was excited by those ‘lightbulb’ moments students would have when something clicked,” she recalls. “I was also fortunate enough to work in the Asian American Studies department there, and for the first time, I saw that Asian Americans could be professors and experts in the field and that their experiences could be fully represented in the curriculum as the focus of classes, not as a passing unit for a day or, in many cases, not visible at all.” 

Lee says she prefers the close-knit environment of liberal arts colleges. “The more intimate setting has given me the chance to work closely with students, to teach courses in my area, and, most importantly, to show Asian Americans and other students of color that we can be experts and that learning about our particular histories matters greatly.” At Dickinson College, Lee lends her skills and knowledge as a faculty advisor for Asian student groups. She advises students broaden their horizons beyond campus borders. “Get off campus and explore the city or town you’re in,” she suggests. “Many times, students stay on campus and have little to no engagement with the people who live in the space where their college is located, who may have very different life experiences.” 

Related: Strong Women Leading the Higher Education Industry

Dr. Jeffrey Kawaguchi, MSAT Program Director at Pacific University

Dr. Jeffrey Kawaguchi’s years as an athlete in high school and college became his lifelong career. As Director of the Master of Science in Athletic Training (MSAT) program at Pacific University, Kawaguchi helps students condition the next generation of athletes. He pursued athletic training because he was inspired by the prospect of “being part of the journey for so many ‘elite’ athletes and seeing what could be physically achieved,” he says. Kawaguchi earned two Bachelor of Science degrees—one in Biology from Washington State University and the other in Physical Therapy from Northwestern University. He then earned both an MA in Physical Education and a PhD in Sports Medicine from the University of Virginia

Kawaguchi has been at Pacific since 2014 and has been program director since 2015. His duties as director include “directing and mentoring the three other faculty and overseeing all operations of the program,” while his specific role is “mostly administrative.” He’s proud to lead a program that has graduated so many successful alumni. “I’m constantly in awe of how much they accomplish and the enthusiasm with which they approach each challenge,” he says. “Clinically, I’ve also had the opportunity to work with amazing athletes, coaches, and staff—including those involved with USA Basketball and US Figure Skating.” It’s important to Kawaguchi to keep the athletic training program current. “As the role of athletic trainer in health care continues to expand, we try to reflect this change in opportunities for our students,” he says. “For example, we’re constantly adding clinical experiences within not just traditional athletic training sites but also working with athletes in the performing arts, with industrial workers, or in physicians’ offices and clinics.”

He recommends making the most of everything a college offers. “College is a wonderful place that provides connections to all sorts of interesting people and community service activities, cultural activities, internships, scholarships, and extracurricular activities,” he says. “Take advantage of everything that comes your way. Try not to be too busy, or worse yet, ‘bothered’ by all that you have to do.”

Request information from Pacific University! Request information from Washington State!

Dr. Louise Ko Huang, Assistant Dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences and Director of The Center for Research in Science at Azusa Pacific University

Dr. Louise Ko Huang is Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Studies in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences and Director of the Center for Research in Science at Azusa Pacific University. She say she feels “very blessed to do meaningful work.” Environmental stewardship and sustainability are her main areas of interest, and she incorporates hands-on experiential learning into her courses whenever she can. One of her proudest professional accomplishments has been implementing the College’s Environmental Studies minor. “APU never had an environmental program, so this is really a milestone,” she says. Huang studied Polymer and Environmental Chemistry, receiving her BS from Cornell and her MS and PhD from University of California, Davis

As Assistant Dean, Huang is responsible for developing and implementing new programs and overseeing student recruitment. As Director of the Center for Research, she oversees countless groundbreaking research projects conducted by faculty and students. Current projects range from studies on limb regeneration to game theory to the effect of wildfires on plant life. As an administrator, Huang says, “Affecting change can be challenging. You may have an idea that may not be well received by others. Convincing others and getting their buy-in can be difficult. Ideas that aren’t status quo aren’t always well received.” She says she’s fortunate to be surrounded by amazing people. “Working with my colleagues is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job,” she explains. “We have some amazing people here—I’m very grateful.” 

Huang advises students to find a college “where you’ll thrive. Know how and where you’ll do best. Is it at a large college or a small school with personalized learning? Visit campus and talk to the students—try to get a glimpse of what it’s like to live and study there.” Regardless of the setting, Huang stresses developing an appreciation for being a student during extraordinary times. “It’s an exciting time to be alive. Just thinking about so much innovation—a [COVID-19] vaccine developed in such a short time…it’s a miracle,” she says. “Consider new things. Think outside the box. It’s an exciting time in which we’re living!”

Related: Women in STEM: 4 Ways to Empower Yourself in the Field

We hope this spotlight has inspired you in your college search or quest to become a leader in education. Be sure to check out the amazing schools these Asian American and Pacific Islander educators work for. They’re just a sampling of the AAPI professionals working at colleges across the country—and if you’re an AAPI student who aspires to teach, you’ll be in great company.

Start searching for great colleges to earn a Teaching degree on our featured Education School Profiles page, and Happy Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month!

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