A college graduation cap with the words future education leader on it
Story Leadership

A Conversation with the CSU's APIDA Presidents

Alisia Ruble

In celebration of Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Heritage Month, some of the CSU's campus leaders reflect on their journey and inspiration.

A college graduation cap with the words future education leader on it

The California State University is comprised of some of the most academically, economically and ethnically diverse students, faculty and staff in the nation. Its 23 campus presidents not only reflect the unique identities of community members, but they also work to promote equity and inclusion, acting as servant leaders to empower those who come after them.

While Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) individuals account for less than 5 percent of four-year college and university presidents in the United States, APIDA leaders make up about 17 percent of the CSU’s campus presidents. To mark the occasion of Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Heritage Month, we asked the CSU’s APIDA campus presidents to share their journey and what inspires their work.

Read thoughts from Stanislaus State President Ellen N. Junn, Sonoma State President Judy K. Sakaki, Cal State Fullerton President Framroze Virjee and CSU Channel Islands President Richard Yao.

Ellen Junn smiling for a profile picture Ellen N.​ Junn, Stanislaus State President
First Korean Ame​​​rican Wo​man in the U.S. to Lead a Four-Year University

As one of a small number of APIDA university presidents in the U.S., what motivated you​ to keep pursuing new and higher roles when you didn’t see people like yourself in leadership positions?

In all candor, I must admit that I never realized that there were so few APIDA individuals represented at the top levels of higher education administration until I became a university president. I had not contemplated this fact because I had never imagined or set a goal of becoming a top-level administrator in academia—possibly due to a range of cultural, societal and demographic factors.

In terms of cultural influences, among several Asian countries such as Japan, Korea and China, educators are accorded very high societal respect and the pursuit of and respect for education is a cultural norm. In my case, my father was the first in his family to go to college from his remote, poor South Korean island farming community because my grandfather made it a priority.

As a result of my father’s passion for higher education and fervent desire to live in a truly democratic society, he emigrated from South Korea to America after the Korean War to seek and obtain his master’s and doctorate degrees in the U.S. He eventually became a tenured university professor of political science. I absolutely loved learning, and after completing my bachelor’s degree in cognitive psychology, I moved onto a doctoral program to delve more deeply into human cognition and development.

It never dawned on me that there were not many APIDA in higher education leadership positions because APIDA faculty represent the largest proportion of minority faculty in the professoriate in universities, relative to other groups such as African American, Hispanic or other traditionally underrepresented faculty. For example, I have strong memories of having had one or two APIDA faculty who were my professors when I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. I also remember seeing other APIDA faculty across campus, and many were concentrated in the sciences, engineering and sometimes business.

I was successful and happy in my role as a tenured professor but, over time, I started getting nominated for progressively higher academic leadership positions. I found it rewarding and exciting to be able to work in these positions that enabled me to enact greater policy and infrastructure changes and to have control over resources that could improve student and faculty success. I did not feel alone or unusual because I loved the work I was doing as an administrator.

After I was appointed president of Stanislaus State, I was startled to realize that I was the first Korean American woman president appointed at a four-year college or university in the U.S. Even more surprising to me was that this is especially the case for APIDA women. To my knowledge thus far, it appears that there have been only 13 APIDA women presidents appointed to lead four-year comprehensive colleges or universities in the U.S. since 1998. ​Furthermore, this APIDA leadership gap, sometimes referred to as the “bamboo ceiling,” is not limited to academia, since there are similar gaps in other professions. This “bamboo ceiling gap” persists ​to this day.

How does your unique APIDA heritage and your lived experiences shape your leadership style?

The other interesting fact is that many Americans see APIDA as a homogenous group of Asians. The truth is that this APIDA group, while sharing many underlying similarities, come from completely different and separate countries with entirely different languages, religious affiliations and political, societal and historical trajectories. On top of these differences among Asian countries of origin, once Asians emigrated to the U.S. and were assimilated in varying degrees to become “Asian American,” the heritage and lived experiences become even more complicated and nuanced. Therefore, each of us has a unique cultural, historical and generational background that is often hard to explain in predictable ways.

My lived experiences growing up in America as an APIDA in the “melting pot” assimilation ethos of the Midwest, with a brief stint in the deep South shortly after the era of civil rights and during the emergence of women’s rights, all had a profound and transformative effect on my perspectives and view of the world. Not surprisingly, my parents fully embraced assimilating to the American way of life by naturalizing as American citizens, changing their names to Bob and Sue to sound more American and giving their children American first names. They were proud to let go of their prior Asian traditions and raised us to become American. So, in many ways, while I am very proud to be APIDA, I do not have strong identification to my country of origin. Where I grew up, we were the only APIDA family in our entire town, and we were proud to call ourselves “American.”

Nonetheless, I can say that some enduring APIDA cultural values continue to be core values for me today. These values include honoring family and family relationships, demonstrating respect for elders and community, showing respect for the value of higher education and valuing the importance of hard work, perseverance, humility, integrity and deference. Many of these values are reflected in my leadership style. In contrast, however, there are other more traditional Asian attitudes that often favor a more authoritarian style of communication or governance and many Asian cultures still have a strong tendency to favor a male-centric approach. As a woman APIDA leader, I have consciously worked to use a much more gender-neutral, proactive, open, collaborative and consultative style in my interactions, communications and relationships, which I believe have been very beneficial skills as an APIDA leader in higher education.

How do you use your leadership platform to inspire and empower students, faculty and staff to dream big and pursue their goals? What inspires you to do this important work, day in and day out?

I have an enduring and deep commitment to upholding and supporting a culture grounded in diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice (DEISJ) philosophy and action steps. I am inspired to support and build an inclusive, just and welcoming environment for the community at Stanislaus State and every CSU campus where I had the good fortune to work.

As an example, after coming to my campus, my staff and I worked with members of our APIDA faculty and staff to establish our first Asian Pacific Islander Faculty & Staff Association (AAPIFSA), and other ethnic organizations like the​ Chicanx/Latinx Faculty and Staff Association (CLFSA) and the Black Faculty and Staff Association (BFSA). We also provide funds from the President’s Office and the President’s Commission for Diversity and Inclusion (PCDI) to fund Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Heritage Month events, cultural commencement receptions and other ethnic social events and activities. I am also fortunate that my cabinet and campus community have supported efforts to combat anti-Asian hate, as I have publicly commented on this t​roubling trend in recognition of our APIDA students, faculty and staff.

Judy Sakaki smiling for a profile picture Judy K. ​Sakaki, Sonoma State President
First Japanese American Woman in the U.S. to Lead a Four-Year University

As one of a small number of APIDA university presidents in the U.S., what motivated you to keep pursuing new and higher roles when you didn’t see people like yourself in leadership positions?

The lack of people who looked like me was and continues to be a strong motivation for my career trajectory, but it did not come without sacrifice. When so many of my colleagues were men, and I was a single mother raising two boys, I had to make sure I was in my office early enough for meetings that were scheduled without concern for parental duties. And I had to work to find common areas of discussion with men who came into the office ready to discuss the latest basketball or football game. In the early days, I really had to adapt to the existing culture to move up within it.

​Now, things have changed some, and for the better, but women, who comprise approximately 50 percent or more of college students, are represented by about a third of presidents in higher education. And digging down into those statistics, among Minority Serving Institutions (MSI), only 12 percent have female presidents. APIDA presidents constitute a very small percentage of all higher education executive leaders, and that is not even broken down by gender.

When I was appointed president of Sonoma State in 2016, I was the first Japanese American woman in the U.S. to head up a four-year public university. Had I not lived the life I did, I would have found that flabbergasting. This was before the publicity of the anti-Asian hate was fomented by the pandemic. Although even back in 2016, I and the university received several hateful comments directed at me as a female APIDA president.

All of this keeps me going and keeps me faithful to opening as many doors as I can to talented individuals of color, especially women, who are not moving rapidly enough or painlessly enough through the leadership pipeline. I know there are many who believe that it is not the responsibility of people of color to get that pipeline working more efficiently, but until I see enough allies who are really acting on behalf of talented staff, faculty and executive leaders of color, I will do what I can, in whatever way I can, to help.

How does your unique APIDA heritage and your lived experiences shape your leadership style?

Both my parents and grandparents were interned in camps during World War II, something that they never talked about, but which shaped all of our experiences in the years that followed. I only knew that my parents worked extremely hard, that they were concerned about their children’s ability to support themselves, and that we maintained a kind of resilience that I compare to stalks of bamboo, which can bend almost to the ground without breaking or losing integrity.

I was a first-generation college student, despite being told by my high school counselor that I would be well-suited to retail sales. The evolution of my thinking and experience was due in large part to mentors—often women who encouraged me to push the boundaries of what I was expected to do and what I could do. And, I always had those values from my parents that I should not give up, so I continued along my career path, working to understand and negotiate the professional cultures along the way.

Some may see that as stereotypical of Asian cultures, but we need to remember that different groups have adapted to discrimination, racism and racist violence in ways that help ensure their survival. I don’t think of my personality or background as stereotypically anything, but I do recognize that the conditions in which I grew up helped shape me, and necessitated methods of managing that aligned with values and ideals from my family, community and experience.

In terms of my leadership style, the cumulation of those experiences and values is that I tend to be very consultative in my decisions. I solicit input from key stakeholders, and I truly enjoy talking to students, staff and faculty about what their experiences are like and what we can learn from each other.

After the 2017 [Tubbs] fire, in which I lost my home and almost lost my life, a strong sense of community on campus really kept me going. My focus on resilience became important in a new way. And there was just so much shared empathy because so many had suffered loss during that time. That experience taught me an invaluable lesson about the importance of engagement as both a formal and informal ideal.

How do you use your leadership platform to inspire and empower students, faculty and staff to dream big and pursue their goals? What inspires you to do this important work, day in and day out?

Because I am a product of public education and grew up in East Oakland, I try to give back to the organizations that helped me on my way. I speak at events, work directly with student groups both on campus and in the community and am passionate about recruiting and retaining more diverse faculty, staff and students to Sonoma State.

I have contributed some family items to an exhibit, “From Suffrage to #MeToo,” at the Museum of Sonoma County, hosted fellows from the American Council on Education (ACE)—a program that was incredibly helpful for me—​and currently serve on the ACE Women’s Network Executive Council. I was a founding board member of APAHE (Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education) and have consulted with myriad universities, including Yale, on how to strengthen their support for students, especially students from historically marginalized groups. And I take to heart Ella Baker’s admonition to “lift as you climb.”

It is such a pleasure to see diversity become more and more institutionalized on our campuses, because the richness of everyone’s experience is so much deeper. And to see our students and colleagues of color dream big is central to my professional satisfaction. ​I believe in the Japanese saying: “Tsumoreba Yama to Naru.” It means that even the finest particles of dust, when gathered together, can allow those that come behind you to climb higher and see further than they dreamed possible.

Framroze Virjee smiling for a profile picture Framroze Virjee, Cal State Fullerton President
First Indian American Person to Lead CSUF

​As one of a small number of APIDA university presidents in the U.S., what motivated you to keep pursuing new and higher roles when you didn’t see people like your​self in leadership positions?

As a first-generation student and an immigrant to this country, I have always been inspired by the ideas and ideals that we, as Americans, espouse around equity, inclusion, opportunity and social justice. Though they did not experience higher education, my parents clearly understood its value; the trajectory it provides for social mobility and equity. That meant, in our home, there was no space for "I can’t" or "It's not fair." Roadblocks were viewed as made for removal, systemic barriers were viewed as obstacles to navigate and actualizing your dreams was viewed as a window to success.

As someone who is half Indian and who identifies as such, but who easily presents as white, I did not face the same barriers Mom and Dad did, or that we did together as a family.  Instead, the further I traveled from the wonderful home they provided, the easier it was for me to access the privilege that is inherent in our society for some, but at the expense of others. That was a motivator to take on new and more advanced roles in my career—to pursue leadership opportunities, but to do so with a mindset of a wedge to open the door, a catalyst to make change and a leader to insist on equity, inclusion and social justice.

How does your unique APIDA heritage and your lived experiences shape your leadership style?

My dad was a Merchant Marine Sea captain, so I grew up on a ship. I had seen half the world by the time I was six and moved to the U.S., which included not only the experience of many cultures, but the enriching traditions of family and faith that were shared with me deeply and regularly by my Zoroastrian fa​mily. Religious and calendar celebrations, prayers and rites of passage, food and family; these all shaped me, teaching me values, the beauty of faith, the joy of service and the strength of tradition.

As I rose to adulthood, the concepts of social justice, equality, unalienable human rights, care and compassion that were shared with me by my parents informed who I would become as a leade​r, as did their historical and cultural perspectives and their experiences in our new home. It was this exposure to my heritage and my lived experiences that drove me to the law, and to all it can and might do to further these values. Within the law, these same cultural and lived experiences worked as a magnet to attract me to the concepts of non-discrimination, freedom from harassment and the exercise of basic rights that find root in constitutional and labor and employment laws. And as I came to represent educational institutions, and then to teach within higher education, I found that the voice of these lessons could be magnified, multiplied and melded through education to further the very aims they represent.

Today, as a leader in higher education, my lived experiences implicate my leadership in everything I do. Building consensus rather than directing; seeking common ground rather than slipping into the chasms that can divide us; running the marathon of leadership and legacy, rather than the sprint of quick fix and fabrication; and always knitting into the moral imperative of what is right, what is just and what will provide the opportunity for all to find not just a seat, but a voice at the table.

How do you use your leadership platform to inspire and empower students, faculty and staff to dream big and pursue their goals? What inspires you to do this important work, day in and day out?

Most of the time I enjoy the privilege of forgetting my personal identity and focusing on the leadership of CSUF. I work, play, participate and wade into the Titan community focused on the future we seek and charting a path that will assure that we reach that destination. And then the signposts come: I catch a glimpse of my hands on the keyboard and realize they are as brown as Dad’s. I speak with a student who is intent on and demanding equity and opportunity for their community and I see my heart reflected in their eyes. I watch the first-generation student crossing the quad, backpack filled not only with books and computer, but also with Mom and Dad, sisters and brothers, and I can sense the palpable yearning to belong. These signposts and markers implicate and vindicate. They move and motivate. And with that motivation, with that sense of urgency and purpose, I renew my attempt to lead and empower all in our community—faculty, staff and students—to not only dream big, but actualize those dreams.

Members of the Titan community regularly ask me about my job: What is it you actually do? I tell them that with infrastructure, housing, energy, retail, construction, contracts, transportation, law enforcement, marketing, communications, etcetera, I run a medium-sized city of almost 50,000 people. And then there is our business, our calling of education. But really, amongst all the administration, finance, philanthropy, enrollment management and more, the real job is to inspire. To inspire all in our community to personal success, sure.  But just as important, to inspire us to cultivate and build the success for all in our community. To not only be the best that we each can be, but to ensure that all members of our community have that same opportunity. For me, that is both the definition and definer of successful leadership for our university and, as such, for me as its presi​dent.

Richard Yao smiling for a profile pictureRichard Yao, CSU Channel Islands President
First Person of Color to Lead CSUCI

A​s one of a small number of APIDA university presidents in the U.S., what motivated you to keep pursuing new and higher roles when you didn’t see people like yourself in leadership positions?

The students have been my motivation since the beginning of my career. I was motivated by and pursued positions that served underrepresented students, including our APIDA students and our first-generation students. As I came into leadership roles in higher education, I began to better understand the magnitude of being an APIDA-identifying leader. I recognize now that I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me, who carved the path to allow me to be in this position. I recognize the responsibility I have to represent our APIDA community, and that recognition starts with our students. Representation matters and engaging with our APIDA community reminds me of how we can further support and serve our APIDA students.

How does your unique APIDA heritage and your lived experiences shape your leadership style?

While growing up, my family didn’t talk about what it means to be APIDA, and we didn't discuss race and ethnicity and the impact it had on our individual life experiences. Then growing up in settings that were not diverse, and not having those developmental conversations about identity, I experienced so much turmoil. It wasn't until recently that I recognized how much of my struggle stemmed from a lack of understanding and clarity of what being APIDA meant to me.

I recognize how everyone has their own path to learning to appreciate their racial identities, and now that I have a better understanding of the necessity of talking about our narratives, experiences and intersecting identities, I hope to help facilitate those discussions on our campus. Knowing that we all must challenge ourselves to take that journey, and that a leader's responsibility is to facilitate movement on that journey—fulfilling diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) goals along the way—influences my leadership style. Individual actions help us advance toward our DEIA goals, which in turn facilitates the systemic and policy level changes that are required for long-term change. Everyone must be willing to take the journey to better understand themselves and others through DEIA work.

How do you use your leadership platform to inspire and empower students, faculty and staff to dream big and pursue their goals? What inspires you to do this important work, day in and day out?

I recognize how important it is to model behavior for our students. How I navigate and cope with adversity, continue to learn and grow as a leader and communicate with others are all part of that process of facilitating others on their leadership journey. I need to be right there with them, taking that extra step to offer support and empathy with all members of our campus community and beyond. This also leads to discussing how not everyone is going to agree when a decision is made, but if we can have an open conversation about the rationale, context and thoughtfulness behind these difficult decisions, we can come to a respectful resolution that builds those partnerships and makes us stronger.

The students inspire me every day, and their success is at the forefront of my mind. I am deeply aware of the magnitude of this position and how my leadership impacts our students' success. Our campus partners' hard work and dedication inspires my work, and these opportunities for collaboration across divisions maintain that inspiration. The ability for our students to feel a sense of belonging and pride in our university, and that their identities are valued and embraced, is the greatest inspiration as president.

The CSU partners with APIDA communities to increase the college preparation, enrollment and graduation rates of those students across the state of California. Learn more about these efforts.​