By Nina Huang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Rachel Endo never saw herself as a leader, let alone make history as a leader. In fact, she graduated in the bottom quarter of her high school class in Nebraska and didn’t expect to go to college.
But fast forward a few decades, she is the first U.S.-born person of color and woman of color to serve at the decanal level in the history of the University of Washington Tacoma (UWT) campus. Endo also joined as the founding dean of the School of Education at UWT in 2017, where she holds faculty rank of professor with tenure.
Challenges of erasure
Growing up in Nebraska, a predominantly white state, Endo experienced the challenges of erasure. She didn’t have opportunities to learn about her Asian American identity and there were no Asians in mainstream culture that she could learn from.
“I didn’t expect to go to college. I didn’t know because there weren’t many examples of what AAPIs could do beyond certain things like stereotypical roles,” she said.
Endo is thankful she had her family to look up to.
“They don’t have college degrees, but they’re authentic and have navigated their own intergenerational traumas… they’ve navigated these systems in their own ways.”
She first attended Metropolitan Community College in Omaha and then transferred to the University of Nebraska. Though she and her older brother were the first in their family to attend college, going to college was an issue of accessibility and affordability at the time.
Unexpected path to leadership
Endo described herself as introverted and never saw herself as a leader in a white dominant frame, such as higher education. Her path to where she is now has been accidental.
“I never thought of that as my path, but I grew into it and made it my own,” she said.
Though she didn’t envision herself as a leader, James Freeman, one of the few leaders of color at the University of Nebraska, inspired and convinced Endo to pursue this line of work to help students of color.
“Seeing him connect with students made me realize there really is power in representation,” she said.
It had been apparent from undergraduate to the graduate level that there were so few students of color.
Endo has had several professors throughout her journey as her mentors and role models including Freeman. There were other folks like Sheila Edwards Lange, Chancellor of UWT; Ali Modarres, Dean of Urban Studies and Assistant Chancellor of Community Partnerships at UWT; and Violet Harris, professor emerita at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Endo shared her challenges being an Asian American woman. There are expectations around Asian women being submissive or stereotypical, which means other leaders may not take her as seriously.
“Higher education was not created for or by people of color, not just with leaders but with community partners, they don’t have the framework. It’s challenging because I have to think about teachable moments. How can I re-message things in a different way or many ways to have a mutual understanding and awareness of equity issues? That’s just the way things are,” she said.
Over the years, Endo has navigated her own learning differences and that has been a big part of her leadership style.
“In my role and even as a faculty member, my goal has been to destigmatize exceptionalities. We all have different strengths and things of that sort. I’ve been trying to make that explicit for the students at UWT with disabilities. One of my goals is to teach how we all move in the world differently and to be as inclusive as possible,” she said.
During the pandemic, there would be classes held virtually with the expectation of turning the camera on, but some people with disabilities may not be able to do that. Endo shared how important it is to educate folks about accessibility and universal design principles so the education setting can be more inclusive—whether they’re invisible or visible disabilities.
“The goal is to support the next generation of leaders to have a positive impact on the community.”
Endo recently talked to a group of young people of color who never saw themselves as leaders either. They talked about barriers and challenges of being first generation, and shared examples of how other leaders would dismiss them. Endo shared her perspective and also emphasized how helpful it can be when leaders have similar lived experiences to the people they’re serving.
As a first-generation student who transferred to a bigger university similar to current UWT students, Endo wants to use her background to help other leaders make equitable decisions.
Constantly educating others is important.
“People don’t tend to be ableist or exclusive on purpose, but I might say, ‘This might be problematic for certain groups. Can we think of ways to be more inclusive?’” Endo shared.
Bridging the gap
In addition, Endo shared that she’s constantly innovating ways to provide education or services to help realize the goal. A lot of people did that for her and she’s hoping others will be met with fewer barriers to reach their full potential.
Endo hopes to continue to bridge the gap with community partners, including Lange, to reduce barriers to dismantle generational poverty, to move beyond survival, and see communities thrive.
“I’m proud of what we’re doing. UWT’s School of Education is one of the smaller schools, but I know we’re making a great impact to fill important needs after students graduate. Say we have 150 students this year, then that’s 150 amazing people who will have an amazing impact in the community,” she said.
“For AAPI leaders, especially with the rising violence against our communities, it’s important to continue educating ourselves and loved ones because there’s so much at stake. That’s also what motivates me, it’s really ugly now, but the work has even higher stakes for all of us. Now is an important moment to build solidarity within our community and other communities of color.”
Nina can be reached at email@example.com.