AAPI Community Members Shared Their Experiences as "Voices of Leadership"


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Monday, July 1, 2024
Voices of Leadership panelists talk online

On May 20 Rio Salado College held a special event in recognition of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Month. Voices of Leadership: A Panel Discussion with AAPI Trailblazers brought together Rio students and staff with fellow educators and community members to discuss their experiences navigating professional environments as AAPI individuals. Rio Salado College. Reina Ferrufino, Rio Salado College's Executive Officer of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging, helped moderate the event which was full of insightful conversation about the panelists’ shared experiences.

The panel members included:

  • Lily Beth Brazones, Program Manager at Rio Salado
  • Devi Bala, Vice President of Administrative Services at Rio Salado
  • Kenny Importante, Director of Asian Pacific American Student Affairs at the University of Arizona
  • Don Khan Huai, Rio Salado student and recipient of the 2023 Learner of the Year Award from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL)

The panel members came from several different AAPI homelands: the Philippines, Myanmar, and India. Brazones greeted the audience in three different ways with her dialect and explained that there's a lot of linguistic variety in the Philippines due to its many varied regions (out of the 7,641 islands that make up the Philippines archipelago, 2000 of them are inhabited).

Ferrufino started the conversation by asking the panel to share the paths that brought them to their current positions. Importante shared about the importance of mentorship and how being involved in AAPI student activities and helping to organize cultural heritage celebrations during his time at the University of California, Santa Barbara, inspired him to really think about pursuing a career in student affairs. Brazones, who has been teaching at Rio Salado since 1984, said she found a passion for education early on, volunteering as an instructor at an all male high school in American Samoa before immigrating to the U.S. Bala praised Maricopa, attributing her success to a combination of patience, persistence, hope, and hard work.

When asked how they celebrate their AAPI identities, Huai said she celebrates Zomi National Day through her community’s preferred mode of expression: dancing! She shared about how her culture honors teachers by once a year having students bring gifts and food to show their gratitude and respect. “In my culture, we believe that teachers are a blessing from God,” Huai said. “Giving respect and appreciation blesses our kids at school.” Brazones talked about being a “homeroom mom” and bringing Philippines artifacts and photos to her children’s schools every year. She even does a cooking demonstration to showcase the culinary traditions and techniques from her culture. Brazones displayed her collection of unusual Barbie dolls to the audience, each one wearing different costumes representing regions from the Philippines.

Importante discussed the emphasis of speaking both English and his native language with his family to help maintain a cultural connection. He also noted the significance of storytelling in his culture, and how proud he is that his family has been able to pass down stories and traditions through multiple generations.

When asked about specific barriers and challenges they've had to face as members of the AAPI community, Bala brought up the pressure of community expectations. "There's an expectation in the Indian community that you're either a doctor or a software engineer," Bala said. She also talked about how much of a disadvantage it can be when you don’t have a high school education in America (even if you’ve received higher education abroad) and how the lack of grounding in English and American cultural norms can make it difficult to acclimate.

Brazones explained how humility is a desired and expected quality in the Philippines, but that same easy-going attitude can make it hard to assert yourself and challenge others in American professional culture. When asked what institutions could do differently to better serve AAPI community members, Huai suggested more support for students- that verbally reaching out to them and seeing if and where they need help can be extremely important for students who have English as a second language.

As the panel began to wound down and ended with a lively Q&A, Importante said that one of the issues he faces as an educator is dealing with the “model minority” myth. He talked about having to advocate harder to get support for Asian students because sometimes other instructors and administrators don’t think they need the help due to the stereotype that (as Importante put it), “Asian American students just have it all figured out.” The stereotype of Asian Americans being “good at math and science” can be an impediment for them getting support because their mastery of the material is overestimated.

“It’s a beautiful tradition we have,” Huai said, reflecting on the panel’s AAPI heritage as the conversation ended. AAPI Month may be over but that beauty endures year-round.

Want to learn more? The Rio Salado Library AAPI Month guide is available year-round.


Article by Austin Brietta