By Ninette Cheng
Northwest Asian Weekly
Frances Youn is a second-generation Korean American, a daughter, a student, and now, a student regent.
Youn, a second-year Master of Business Administration (MBA) candidate at the University of Washington (UW), was appointed student representative to the school’s Board of Regents by Gov. Chris Gregoire.
Youn’s road to becoming a student regent was a long one. The process was three to four months long.
Youn was born and raised in Calgary, Canada. Growing up, she did not know many Asians. She cites her journey to discovering her culture as a big part of her self-exploration.
“My parents are first-generation Koreans,” she said. “Growing up, I didn’t appreciate how much they sacrificed. Just one generation ago, both my parents grew up during the Korean War. My father wasn’t able to go to school until he was 10. [He was the] only person in his village able to pursue higher education.”
Youn started as a biology major, but switched after one year. Her decision to switch was influenced by events that happened during her college years including the WTO protests, the ending of affirmative action, and 9/11.
“I changed to sociology and LSJ (law, society, and justice) because I saw that I could have a greater role in the community,” she said. “[Due to those events], naturally, I just have a passion for social justice.”
After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Youn spent seven years working in the public sector for Rep. Sharon Santos, Seattle City Councilmember Richard McIver, and Sen. Patty Murray.
Youn returned to the UW last year to attend business school. She plans to graduate from the two-year program in 2011.
Youn began the application process toward becoming the student regent in March. She submitted application essays, transcripts, letters of recommendation, and her resume to the student board.
The student board comprised third-year UW law and international studies graduate student Jake Faleschini and his co-chairs. The board consists of 12 representatives from various student government organizations from all three UW campuses.
The board interviewed six candidates before sending three finalists off to Gregoire for the final selection.
“I watched Frances in our interview, with her actively engaging and learning,” Faleschini said. “She was willing to learn from everyone else. That’s what I found the most compelling about her personally.”
“It was a very thorough [selection process] but an incredible experience,” Youn said. “Even if I hadn’t been selected, I would encourage other students to apply. Even being a finalist, so many doors opened for me.”
Faleschini and the previous year’s student regent Ben Golden say that while the student regent does not have to be a former UW undergraduate, he or she often is.
“You have to understand the culture of this place and the students, Faleschini said. “How do you do that if you weren’t an undergraduate here?”
The university is a $3.6 billion institution. If it were a business, it would be the third largest business in Washington.
“It is incredibly complex, extremely diverse,” Faleschini said. “The research being conducted is the cutting edge of all research being conducted in the world, and we’re asking someone to understand that in less than three months. You need someone who’s incredibly smart and picks up on things very quickly.”
Youn feels the major issues that concern the students, herself included, are affordable, quality education and diversity.
“The number one thing is quality of education,” she said. “They rank that even higher than affordability. It’s a catch-22. In order to have quality education, you have to have funding to bring in professors. It’s going to be a tough battle in Olympia. Last year, we had a 30 percent cut. The UW received disproportionate funding compared to other institutions. We’re going to go back there and fight for local control.”
“Overarching all of this is diversity,” Youn said.
Golden agreed with Youn and said it was a priority for him as well.
“I think diversity is a very important attribute that makes a school great,” he said. “It’s difficult to champion something when you don’t have new money to pursue a new initiative. I think what Frances can do is talk about it a lot as a value and make sure that the regents will highlight some of the good things we do.”
He cited the UW’s Dream Project, a student-run program that assists low-income and first-generation students with the college application process.
“I asked that we have a presentation of the Dream Project at a regent’s meeting,” Golden said. “The media in the room did a follow up on it.”
Golden said that Youn can bring the issue of diversity to the forefront so that the community knows that it is a priority.
Despite her accomplishments, Youn said she feels the insensitivity at times. As a young woman, it can be difficult to get her voice heard.
“It’s more with the assumption of because you look young, you’re less of a power player,” she said. “Sixty percent of my classmates are men. A lot of the time, you see the men take the leadership roles. The kinds of conversation that take place in class are not always culturally sensitive.”
At the same time, Youn feels her cultural background is particularly significant in shaping who she is as a leader.
“I think Asian Americans have a unique leadership style that is different from mainstream America,” she said. “I think that they sit back and listen more to see what is going on and take that in and then assess the situation and voice what needs to be done. To me, relationships are really important, and I think that comes from my heritage.”
At the end of the day, Youn wants students to feel like she is accessible.
“I’m just an ordinary person,” she said. “I’m not an extraordinary student. I’m not incredibly outgoing. It feels uncomfortable for me to be in front of the public. I think it’s a testament that leadership is defined in a number of different ways.” ♦
Ninette Cheng can be reached at email@example.com.