An ambassador of diversity in the Office
of African-American Affairs
Imagine a college professor
asking a student to change his name — that’s what
happened to Xiaoming Yu when he attended the University of Exeter
in Great Britain. The professor found the Chinese names of his
25 new students too difficult to pronounce. Yu, now assistant
dean of the Office of
African-American Affairs, chose the name “Peter,”
he said, because one of the Chinese meanings of “yu”
is fish and that made him think of St. Peter, the fisherman.
Xiaoming Yu put the English name away when he came to the Curry
School’s doctoral program in social foundations to study
comparative and international education in 1986, but 10 years
later, he dusted it off and decided “Peter” would
be less intimidating for students coming to him for advice.
Yu returned to the University in 1996 at a time when the administration
and students were considering the idea of changing or expanding
the Office of African-American Affairs to become a multicultural
Although that didn’t end up happening, OAAA programs have
become more inclusive, and staff from the Dean of Students office
are dedicated to advising other minority groups. Yu’s job
duties also have grown recently: under the separate Virginia 2020
initiative to expand international activities, he has become the
coordinator of a summer program for U.Va. students in his native
city of Shanghai.
Yu continues to orchestrate the successful faculty-student mentoring
program that has been one of his primary duties for several years.
Faculty who want to participate don’t have to be African-American.
The program comprises 300 faculty members, with about 125 of them
active at a time, and 95 students this year. Yu tries to match
faculty members and students based on career interests and other
Yu himself advises third-year African-American students, with
some 250 of them under his wing. He passes along information about
social activities, keeps them informed of pertinent academic opportunities
and often lends an ear.
“I’m someone they can talk to if they’re having
problems. I want to keep them feeling supported and encouraged,”
The fact that students who walk into his office see a dean who
is not African-American but Asian may be surprising to them at
first, but Yu thinks there are benefits.
“In terms of diversity, it’s a great lesson. I learn
a lot from the students about their African-American experiences,
and I hope they learn something from me.”
For him the difference is not a problem.
“People talk about having different views and approaches,
but if we address the race issue in the U.S. more deeply, more
carefully, at the core of the problem is race in terms of black
and white. If we talk about diversity without looking at black-white
issues, we won’t get to the point,” he said. Things
like the October 2002 blackface incident are manifestations of
deeper issues, he said.
International students are another group in the University community
who need more attention, said Yu.
“We need to reach out to them.” Diversity might be
an unknown concept to them, he said, but it’s part of their
education and the University’s responsibility to involve
them in the community.
When Yu was a graduate student, he sometimes felt isolated, even
though his fellow students were friendly and accepted him easily,
he said. So he started a school to teach a few Chinese children
their native language. The school, where he still volunteers,
has flourished and will celebrate its 10th year Jan. 25. There
are eight classes now, including martial arts. He also mentioned
that more interest is coming from white Americans adopting Chinese
became an American citizen several years ago, but he’s kept
his Chinese culture and heritage central in his life. He and his
Chinese wife have a daughter and speak mostly Chinese at home.
They visit China regularly. Although the fledgling Shanghai program
was cancelled last summer due to the SARS outbreak, he is planning
for the summer of 2004 and looking forward to the trip.