Important life lessons learned at last semester’s WAALI panel

February 27, 2014
“All people are subjected to discrimination at some point in life. The more important thing is that you are able to confound expectations. Never lose faith in yourself; if so, you lose.” ~ Meredith Woo, Buckner W. Clay Dean of College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Kiana Williams

It’s Monday night and the Lawn is quiet, but the shuffling of feet is heard in the front parlor of the Colonnade Club as this year’s cohort of the Women’s Asian American Leadership Initiative (WAALI) come together for their annual leadership panel. Here, successful women of the University of Virginia will speak about their careers and any adversities they may have faced in breaking both the glass and the bamboo ceiling, thus facilitating an open discussion between the two groups.

The Women’s Asian American Leadership Initiative is in its seventh year under the Office of the Dean of Students. With the aid of four facilitators who act as coordinators for dialogue among its participants, WAALI provides an intimate-sized group of second and third-year Asian/Asian-Pacific American women the opportunity to explore what it means to be an AAPA woman introspectively, in society, at the University, and beyond. Selected students participate in a series of sessions on topics and key issues surrounding minority identity in regards to gender and ethnicity, as well as strategies for personal and professional success.

The last session, perhaps the most important of them all, is the Women Leaders Panel.  With an impressive group of guest speakers, each woman shared her educational, cultural and personal backgrounds, offered advice and took questions.  The panel included Karen Kurotsuchi Inkelas, Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education; Saonee Sarker, Professor of Commerce and Information Technology; Shraddha Prasad, Assistant Director of Orientation and New Student Programs; and lastly, Meredith Woo; Buckner W. Clay Dean of College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. * Although the event was held for a small group, the advice given by these women is applicable to all people considering their futures, regardless of gender, race, age, specific plans after graduation.

WAALIparticipants Photos by Kiana Williams
Above pictured are WAALI cohort members, facilitators and guest speakers

1)    Changing careers is OK Karen Inkelas started her education at Northwestern University with full intentions of going on to law school.  Along the way, her career plans shifted to match her growing interest in higher education. However, this did not stop her from reaching success in her field. Career changes were also no stranger to Saonee Sarker. Starting her career as a dancer who had never planned to enter academia, Sarker received a B.A. in English Literature, M.B.A. in Marketing and Ph.D. in Information Technology. “Everything comes full circle and nothing you do goes to waste. [All that] you learn is shaping you in some way, whether directly or indirectly,” Sarker said. Furthermore, these changes are more beneficial than one would assume. “There’s a lot of writing on the research side to IT, so my B.A. was very helpful… It’s a very connected world; all roots from the same tree.  One discipline does not necessarily mean one thing.”

2) Defy your stereotypes Pressures of fitting into a standard that oversimplifies individuality is limiting to one’s self. The panel speakers highlighted this issue as something inevitable, notably in the workforce. As minorities, in both cases of gender and race, these women emphasized the way in which we choose to handle the obstacles we face. “People are quick to assign stereotypes by background and appearance,” Prasad said.  “Sometimes you have to go above and beyond to get through it, and remember that you are more than what people assign to you; you are your own person. “ Concurring with this was Dean Woo, who emphasized the power of perspective. “We all face prejudice and assumptions in terms of how people outwardly see us, and it requires awareness of your surroundings to not get so stressed out by it, being that so much of it is mere ignorance,” Woo said.

3) Take advantage of what makes you different Whatever characteristics may place you within a stereotype, importance lies in utilizing these differences rather than letting them limit you. “At challenging times, you still have the opportunity to stand out and be noticed from a homogenous group. Use that advantage as a positive!” Sarker said. “As AAPA women, we are noticed. As we succeed, we are improving as a whole and are the examples for those who will follow in our footsteps. When you’re faced with a downside, ask about how to turn it into a positive advantage for yourself!”

4) Employers are looking for something that can’t be sold Dean Woo explained that qualifications are not the only factor that organizations look for when hiring. “When looking for a job, employers are looking for a particular social type that they recognize instantly as comfort. It’s not in terms of skill set or degree, but something intangible,” Woo said.  “The comfort of being a team player and the ability to ease into a social culture… It can be very difficult, but luckily U.Va. does socialize us in a particular way, and four years of education will help equip you.”

5) Now is the time to take risks One of the most valuable lessons that Inkelas has learned is that you must entirely invest faith in yourself. “Trust yourself more!” Inkelas said. “You will gain confidence that will help you further than today.” We must challenges ourselves, even if it’s outside of our comfort zone, because this is the age to do so. “If you have a passion, now is the time to go forth with it,” Sarker said. “Life contains latitude, for these new things narrow with age.  Coming out of college versus 10 years later, you are connected in a network and it is harder to allow yourself to follow those passions as time progresses.”

6) Don’t feel rushed Despite the weight of societal expectations and worries that we won’t ever find the “perfect job,” Woo reminds us that not everyone fits this molded timeline and that we are still much younger than we realize. “You are under a lot of pressure to decide what you’re getting out college; that moment may not come for a while,” Woo said.  “You’re lucky if you find that passion in college, for not all do.  This is a confusing time in life, but remember: Life is long.  Whether you find your passion when you graduate or when you’re 40 years old, time is not uniform for everyone.”

7) Consider every opportunity you are given Every good option given, even if it doesn’t fit your planned life path, is still worth thinking about. “You never know where life takes you; never let opportunities go and keep options open,” Sarker said. “Thirty years ago, I wouldn’t have imagined this, but I would have missed out on a lot of things if I didn’t give it a chance.”

8) Make your own values and stay true to them “What you choose to believe and act is defined by you, not others,” Prasad said.  Despite family lessons or what society tells you to do, critical thinking and the ability to challenge the norms is necessary.  What holds true 100 years ago might not today; therefore the choice is yours.” Along the same lines as Prasad, Inkelas noted that with age, we not only become wiser, but also more confident. “The older you get, the easier it becomes to makes decisions because you get comfortable with who you are,” Inkelas said.  “What you do will become less conflictive in time.” Life can get confusing when trying to make sense of growing up, while likewise dealing with constant increases in responsibility. According to these women, the process of growing up never ends and we are constantly learning about ourselves within the shifting stages of life. What matters most is that we never lose sight of the self. Although we are encouraged to grasp hold of all opportunities we can, even those outside of our comfort zone, we are also advised to remember our age and that we have plenty of time to figure out the direction we choose to point our lives in. More information about WAALI can be found on the University of Virginia Office of the Dean of Student’s website under Asian/Asian Pacific Student Services and Programs, or on their official blog.

*Eileen Chou, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, was among invited speakers but unfortunately could not make it due to illness.


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