Earlier this month, I was interviewed by ABC News as part of their coverage of the upcoming Supreme Court case concerning affirmative action in college admissions. The reporter was most interested in how a selective institution like Baruch achieves a diverse student population when race is not a factor in admissions—such policy is consistent across all CUNY colleges. I will return to this topic shortly. The reporter was also interested to know the significance of my being the first Asian American to lead a CUNY college as well as my experience as a member of a racial minority in academia.
Coincidentally, I recently hosted an alumni homecoming where more than 400 Baruch graduates from the classes of 2020, 2021, and 2022 reconnected and celebrated. As I mingled with the crowd, many asked me a similar but somewhat differently framed question: “As you are also an immigrant, what advice do you have for me (as an immigrant) trying to make it in the professional world?”
In both cases, my response was that I often see myself as a bridge between different cultures and backgrounds—and I encourage my younger colleagues to own their story and turn their sense of vulnerability into a source of strength. Let me explain.
A Bridge Between Cultures
I was born and raised in Taiwan and came to the United States in my early twenties as an international student. I experienced profound cultural shock when I arrived some 40 years ago—part of which came from a perpetual sense of insecurity as an outsider. But the truth of the matter is that I had plenty of practice in that outsider role even before coming to the U.S.
Shortly after the Communist takeover and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on the Chinese mainland in 1949, my parents migrated to Taiwan—essentially as refugees. As mainlanders, my family is part of the ethnic minority in Taiwan known as Waishengren, which means “outsider to the province.” This is in contrast to the “native” Taiwanese, descendants of Chinese settlers from the 18th and 19th centuries, who survived 50 years of Japanese colonial occupation until the end of World War II. During the 1960s and 70s, there was an unmistakable but pervasive societal and political conflict—even occasional bloodshed—between native Taiwanese and Waishengren, despite holding the same historic cultural origins. At that time, there were not only identity but also language differences, with the majority of native Taiwanese speaking a regional dialect while Waishengren spoke Mandarin in their own regional accent.
While my parents kept their identity as Waishengren, they fervently instilled in me and my siblings the fundamental values of empathy and mutual respect and never hesitated to help those from different backgrounds. Nonetheless, since early childhood, I adopted the psyche of an outsider—as if I were a passenger who was never quite rooted nor a fully accepted member of the pack. Similar to many children of immigrants, I found myself instinctively bridging the gap of cultural identity between my parents and my friends—most of whom were native Taiwanese—and the gap between our household and the world around us. As I gradually transformed that sense of alienation into a personal mission and a sense of responsibility, I found peace.
Today, most of the conflict and division I witnessed in my youth have vanished from Taiwanese society, replaced with a pluralistic democracy where differences are respected and celebrated. Since my arrival in the U.S. and throughout my career, I continued this role as a bridge between cultures—the culture I grew up in and the one I adopted as an adult and a professional. As a lifelong academic, I found myself passionate about bridging the differences across academic departments and disciplines and between academia and the outside world.
As I travel throughout the world, I have seen similar dynamics. People who are separated by identities, ideologies, and socioeconomic value systems interact in an “us versus them” fashion, while it seems to an observer that their commonalities are far greater than their differences.
Now back to the topic of campus diversity.
Why Campus Diversity?
Most academic institutions in the U.S. would agree that affirmative action in college admissions is one of the tools—for some institutions, a very important tool—to create a diverse student body. Until the recent challenges, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was constitutional for universities to consider race as a factor in its admissions standards in an effort to encourage student diversity. However, current legal and judicial standards for affirmative action in higher education admissions policies require that such policies be “narrowly tailored,” “limited in time,” and serve “a compelling state interest” in achieving student diversity.
Those of you who are familiar with my writings know that I am a strong proponent of diversity on campus. As affirmative action in admissions is a means to an end, I would like to focus on the ends we hope to achieve. In my view, diversity on college campuses is important for two key reasons:
First, it creates a Vibrant Learning Environment. There is increasing criticism that universities have become ideological echo chambers rather than places where ideas are openly examined and debated. As educators, we have a responsibility to create a learning environment that challenges our students’ preconceived notions and exposes them to cultures and points of view that are distinctive from their own—and that is when learning truly occurs.
Second, given the drastic changes in our social and economic constructs, a college education becomes essential in order to participate in key economic activities. As such, college serves as an important Engine of Opportunity. A college education is the strongest proven path to increase wage potential, job retention, and financial stability. For example, the wage gap between young workers with and without bachelor’s degrees has never been larger—$22,000 per year.
College as a Bridge for Opportunity
Education is supposed to be an equalizer that helps all citizens overcome social, economic, and class barriers to success. The widening wealth gap in the U.S. continues to fuel the divide in accessing high-quality education—the most important component of our society’s infrastructure of opportunity. Research has continually shown that children from high- and low-income families have no significant differences in intellectual ability. Success is far more likely to be determined by access to opportunity—which, in the 21st-century economy, is directly impacted by access to higher education. Expanding access to opportunity in underserved communities is not only about social justice but is critical to our nation’s competitiveness—nurturing talents that are in short supply for today’s global innovation economy.
The college admissions policy is but one tool to achieve these ends. If we wait until the admissions process to begin building a diverse student population, it is far too late. Colleges and universities need to put greater effort into building robust pipelines for those who might otherwise not show up in the admissions process at all: historically underrepresented students.
At Baruch, we take a long view and a multifaceted approach regarding how and when positive interventions should take place. We engage with a wide range of partners to develop a strong pipeline to enroll historically underrepresented students throughout the five boroughs. These efforts begin as early as middle school, developing touchpoints with students in numerous areas: with guidance counselors, mentorship programs, afterschool activities, and professional development programs. We engage with target high schools and community colleges to help students prepare academically and psychologically for rigorous college curricula. Just last week, we held a signing ceremony for the BMCC-Baruch Business Academy to celebrate the first in a series of partnerships for a transparent, predictable, smooth path for students to transition from partner community colleges to Baruch.
Create Something with That Bridge
Following the big reset brought on by the pandemic and the reckoning that challenged racial and social prejudices, our society is at a pivotal point. The world is rethinking how organizations are run and what people can contribute to the new way forward. While there may be differences in opinion as to how colleges can build a diverse student population, there is consensus: Higher education is a critical part of the infrastructure for opportunity, and we must work together to strengthen that infrastructure.
Recently, Baruch was invited to join the American Talent Initiative (ATI), a collective of 130 top colleges and universities devoted to expanding access and opportunity for low- and moderate-income students. ATI institutions include regional and flagship public schools, the entire Ivy League, and other leading private liberal arts institutions. Members convene to exchange practices, leverage research and data, and address key challenges to increasing access and success, as well as providing opportunities for lower-income students.
It is a privilege to join this important national effort. And Baruch—with one of the most diverse student populations in the nation and a graduation rate significantly outpacing the national norm—has a lot to offer.
Colleges are not only a bridge between different ideas but also a bridge for the chasm created by social inequality exacerbated by race, class, and educational attainment. But just building that bridge is not enough—what more can we do to create something meaningful with it?