Bringing the Asian-American experience to light
By Anne Bromley
|Assistant dean Daisy Rodriguez helps Asian/Asian Pacific American students explore their own identity while learning more about other Asian cultures and U.Va. culture.
How do you describe Asian American? More than 70 different ways.
Japanese. Korean. Chinese. Vietnamese. Thai. Hmong. Indonesian. Tongan. Polynesian. Samoan. Guamanian. Tahitian. Indian. Hawaiian. Filipino — just to name a few.
The category of Asian/Asian Pacific Islander is much broader than many people know and covers not only huge countries such as India and China, but also hundreds of islands in the ocean west of the United States.
Daisy Rodriguez, assistant dean for Asian/Asian Pacific American students, is “passionate about diversity.” She takes her role as an educator and adviser to heart, eager to enlighten students and others about what it means to be Asian American.
Of Filipino descent, she has found herself explaining her ethnic heritage
repeatedly over the years. Used to living in a diverse military community while growing up (her father was in the U.S. Navy), college at San Francisco State was an eye-opener for her, when her identity was sometimes misunderstood or challenged.
Right off the bat, people could be confused because her name sounds Hispanic. She would have to explain that many Philippine people have Spanish-sounding last names because the Spanish conquistadors swept over the Pacific islands in the 16th century. Spain ceded the territory to the United States in 1898, and the Philippines gained independence after World War II.
At least she doesn’t have to justify her job, she said.
Rodriguez, who recently began her second year in the Dean of Students Office, was interested in the assistant deanship here because, unlike many other colleges and universities, the position is devoted to this wide-ranging minority group that makes up about 10 percent of the University community.
“Commitment to Asian-American students is often overlooked,” she said.
During the past year, Rodriguez has been busy. Besides advising students, she oversees a range of educational and cultural programs. She taught one of the few Asian-American studies courses last spring, with more than 50 students. Informally, she also acts as adviser to several student-run organizations, including the Asian Student Union. She is helping this group draw up a proposal for a new major in Asian-American studies, which is at present only a subject of concentration.
In addition, Rodriguez was the only nonstudent to participate in Sustained Dialogue, a yearlong student-run program to promote cultural and individual understanding. During the bimonthly meetings, she left her official role at the office and became just “Daisy,” she said. Her approach to her position is two-pronged: to bring awareness about the Asian-American experience to the University community and to build unity among the Asian Americans from distinct cultures.
Some of the students Rodriguez advises are not even aware of the complexity of their own Asian heritage, she said. Helping her to broaden their horizons is a cadre of students, undergraduate and graduate, who become mentors in the Peer Advising and Family Network.
In college, Rodriguez missed having a dean or adviser to help her figure some things out and validate her experiences, she said.
One cultural activity she would like to find the time to share again is playing mahjong, the ancient Chinese game that uses tiles instead of cards and that she learned from her mother.
“One of the reasons why I enjoy playing mahjong is connected to how much fun the adults had when we would attend family gatherings; laughter, joking and some playful competitiveness would emerge.
Children would not play, just watch. It was almost like a rite of passage when we were finally allowed to play with the adults. All in all, it’s a great game and is very involving.”
After leaving home, Rodriguez said she would teach others to play mahjong and they’d form a club. It was “a survival tool” for her — a familiar connection that could match up different places and parts of life.
So far, as a faculty member, she hasn’t found a well-developed network for herself, she said.
But she has found a mentor — at Yoke San Reynolds, U.Va.’s vice president for finance.
“I think Asian-American students can relate to Daisy because she [comes across as] a regular person who has shared her experience growing up Asian American,” Reynolds said. “To that common experience she brings
additional dimensions — her insights, life philosophies and her educational background that enable her to provide counsel and advice.”
“It’s a joy to support students — and a personal challenge, too,” Rodriguez said. “It’s exciting to get to know students and their stories,” she added.
The cultural tendency to fit in and not stand out by rocking the boat does influence Asian-American students to assimilate into mainstream American culture, she said. Asian Americans may find it difficult to speak up if someone says something that sounds racist. Some will even change their names if they are hard to pronounce. “Your name — something so basic to your identity!” Rodriguez said.
Thus, she tries to help students explore their own identity while learning more about other Asian cultures and U.Va. culture. She stressed that students need to feel comfortable and safe as part of their own minority group, but also feel welcome as a member of the whole community.
“It’s important to debunk the image that minority groups should only be in their own groups,” she said. “But it’s also important for all students to feel welcome and part of this University. If, after five years, I saw more Asian-American participation in groups like Student Council, University Judiciary Committee and the University Guide Service, I’d be pleased.”
Some U.Va. students need more awareness about their fellow Asian/Asian Pacific American students. For instance, Rodriguez has heard that some white students will drop out of science classes if it looks like a lot of Asian or Asian-American students are enrolled. They base this decision on a stereotype that all Asians are smart in math and science, and therefore Asian students’ performances in the class will make the grading curve too high. She describes this as the myth of the “model minority” having spun out of control.
To give students of Asian descent guidance on how to promote their unique backgrounds, as well as how to run their own student groups,
Rodriguez’ office runs an Asian/Asian Pacific American Leadership Training Institute each year. This spring, she’ll add a new dimension — with a separate workshop for student leaders on multiculturalism, with the aim of enhancing dialogue and collaboration among various student groups. The participants, from different ethnic groups and types of organizations, will have the chance to talk about what they wish other people understood and knew about them. They’ll also discuss goals or activities to move them closer to fulfilling those wishes.