By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Higher education, amid the COVID-19 pandemic and racist violence of 2020 and 2021, was the topic of discussion at the Sept. 8 meeting of the Asian Pacific Directors Coalition (APDC). Co-chairs Erin Okuno and Michael Itti facilitated, while Dr. Mia Tuan, Dean of the College of Education at the University of Washington (UW), and Dr. Shouan Pan, Appointed Chancellor of Seattle Colleges, brought everyone up to date on challenges particular to their college spaces, and participants responded to questions that highlighted AAPI, immigrant, and international student populations. The meeting was held online.
Tuan researches race, ethnicity, and identity development, and formerly held a position at the University of Oregon. She talked about coming into her own during her undergraduate education at Berkeley. Answering an ice breaker question from the organizers, Tuan proposed that a place where people can identify and feel community is an institution of higher education.
“The last 17 or 18 months have been unreal.” She continued, “Being in higher education leadership under the best of circumstances is challenging.” And even more so when “you stir on top of that a pandemic” and are in constant “crisis management” mode, she explained. “We’ve been in there, trying to respond and pivot”—a word she says she hates—“based on the latest guidance,” which changes often overnight. “It’s been crazy trying to stay mission-focused,” she said, while dealing with “unstable ground” and the “mental health challenges” that have arisen.
Tuan was grateful that UW is not dealing with a “plummeting” drop in enrollment. UW is planning to return to in-person classes on Sept. 29. As much as possible, they are considering the mandates laid down by the government, and how they can safely give students the on-campus experience they crave and that four-year universities are famous for.
“Our undergrads want to be in person…they want to be down by the fountain. They want to meet people. They want to be in residence halls…We are doing our level best to provide that.” Tuan’s department is also dealing with the fears of staff and faculty who will also be returning to work in person. “Make no mistake, it’s not regular; there’s nothing regular about it.”
Pan, who has been with Seattle Colleges since 2016, said he “wouldn’t trade this job for any other place. It’s about the students. It’s about the diverse community.” Pan admitted that making adjustments for the pandemic are “getting old” and that “the first six months, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing.” But in the end, they reminded themselves that it’s about the students, who come from diverse economic and ethnic backgrounds. Many are in the work force and have lost their jobs due to the pandemic and so, Seattle Colleges has come up with new certification programs as well as help for technological supplies. Since their enrollment has in fact dropped, they have instituted a policy wherein a student can leave for a certain period, if circumstances require, and come back.
It was hard for Tuan or Pan to sum up a year and a half’s worth of efforts towards keeping their respective institutions running smoothly, yet it was obvious that it has been challenging for both. While full of trials, there have also had moments of beauty, such as the virtual graduations held at Seattle Colleges. They had the opportunity to celebrate students’ heroic efforts to carry on their education, in spite of financial difficulty, in spite of racism and COVID-19 scares, or even death, and in spite of remote learning. This, Pan said, inspires him and his coworkers and lets them know their work is “meaningful.” He spoke of a case where a father and son graduated together, another where an Afghani student streamed the ceremony live for loved ones, and yet another student had his mom on the phone from Mongolia while he posed on the stage for his photo with the mayor and trustees.
The conversation then turned to the recently ubiquitous topic of COVID-19 vaccination and proof of vaccination requirements. Janice Deguchi, executive director of Neighborhood House, described her organization’s COVID-19 vaccination journey, starting with intra-organizational education and moving to a requirement for all employees, including early learning staff, to be vaccinated by Oct. 1.
Deguchi said they have lost a handful of people, and have staff who have requested a waiver from having to show proof of vaccination. For those people, she said, they are not examining the reasons behind their requests—their belief systems and whatnot—but rather, “whether we can accommodate them or not.” As long as the job is remote, this is doable. But when working in person, it is less likely, especially with young children, that staff can keep six feet of distance.
About three months ago, Neighborhood House began giving a vaccine incentive, which raised their vaccination rate up to around 70%. Their plan is to return to increased in-person operations by Oct. 18. Out of 300 employees, Deguchi suspected they will have about 20 who will not be in compliance with proof of vaccination by then, which “may result in termination.”
Meeting participants wondered about the implications of the proof of vaccination, not only for internal employees or students, but also for contractors, vendors, and workers that stop by for only a few minutes, such as delivery drivers. Deguchi pondered if they need to expand their proof of vaccination requirement to apply to all visitors? Tuan added that this triggered questions of “whose job is it?” to ensure compliance. If a delivery driver isn’t vaccinated, do they not accept a package? It was clear that the minutiae of implementation are mind-boggling for everyone.
As the meeting wrapped up, David Escame, of Amerigroup, mentioned that the current membership of APDC was held in high regard, and yet there was a need for vetting new members. Okuno agreed and expressed that participation in APDC was always welcome, and that membership dues were not a “hard requirement.” She added that perhaps there was an incentive in online meetings for greater attendance as it was not necessary to participate in person at a physical meeting space.
The meeting closed with a call for AAPI voting representation in the upcoming elections.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.