Things Happen for a Reason – But It’s Not Always What You Think



I’ve adopted a philosophy over the years that my failures and disappointments have propelled me into being a better version of myself. I’ve embraced my losses and painful experiences as lessons that have strengthened me. But I realize that this “everything happens for a reason” philosophy has limits. Yes, terrible unfortunate events happen in life and it’s appropriate to accept them and move on. But, as a society, adopting this “everything happens for a reason” and “accept it and move on” philosophy when faced with atrocious, heinous, wrongful acts caused by injustice is extremely dangerous.

We instinctually want the world to make sense. We want to feel in control. And we want to avoid discomfort. When a person is harmed, we naturally look for a reason. We want to believe that if we follow the rules, things will work out. And unfortunately, sometimes they don’t. This is when we need to distinguish between unfortunate events and injustices.

An unfortunate event is when a tree falls on someone in the park and kills the person. An injustice is when someone is sexually assaulted. An injustice involves power and/or a violation of someone’s rights. In both cases, we might ask ourselves, “why did this terrible thing happen?” And then we ask, “how could it have been avoided? who caused it? and how do I make sure it doesn’t happen to me?”

When faced with injustices that are so wicked that they feel unbelievable and overwhelming, we risk feeling powerless to make things right. In the the absence of an answer or solution, we will do the next best thing psychologically, which is to convince ourselves that the victims must have brought it on themselves. Psychologists refer to this as the Just World Hypothesis. This is the erroneous, yet powerfully instinctual, idea that individuals get what they deserve. This is extremely dangerous thinking. This is the thinking that perpetuates oppression. This is the thinking that leads to apathy and civic disengagement.

As I discovered in my dissertation research, increased information and exposure to complex problems when presented without tangible solutions or reflection creates a decreased motivation to address the problem. When we cannot make sense of the problem, we are more likely to blame the victim or avoid the issue. If we have privilege (meaning we do not fall into the oppressed category), avoiding the issue becomes an attractive solution. If we relate to the victim, we may be more inclined to blame the victim to give ourselves the false sense of security that it can’t happen to us.

My dissertation research involved working with individuals experiencing homelessness. The causes and solutions to homelessness are complex. It’s difficult to identify the cause, it’s not a one-size fits all solution, and it can feel overwhelming when confronted with the task of improving the situation. On its surface, individuals who are homeless have often experienced an unfortunate event. However, upon further investigation, most individuals have also experienced some form of injustice – a power dynamic that resulted in their loss of ability to secure housing.

Whether we are discussing how to respond to homelessness or sexual assault, we must question our instincts to blame the individuals. Instead of victim blaming, we must root out the problem, name it, fight against it, and educate about it. Otherwise, we perpetuate the oppression and the problem.

There is no shortage of overwhelming and complex issues – immigration, health care access, pay equity – that are driven by underlying power dynamics. These are issues that can trigger our instinctual thinking to blame the victim. It is often easier to blame an individual – a refugee, someone struggling with mental illness, a person with a disability – than to confront the bigger issue.

Instead of moving quickly to the Just World explanation, we need to ask ourselves, “is there an injustice here? is this person impacted by a system that reinforces power? could there be another explanation?” These important reflection questions allow us to find the answers that empower us to make social change. These answers often challenge the status quo and require changes to the power structures that perpetuate the problems. These answers are often more unpopular than the idea of blaming the victim.

Too many of us are checked out, disengaged, overwhelmed, distracted, and feeling powerless. In order to reengage in social issues, we must help ourselves and others to think critically about these problems, to move beyond victim blaming, and to look for injustice and name it. This process of reflection is necessary if we want meaningful change. Yes, things happen for a reason but it’s not always what we think.


Burkeman, O. Believing that life is fair might make you a terrible person. The Guardian, February 3, 2015,

Pedersen, J. (2008). The effect of service learning in higher education on students’ motivation to be civically engaged. UCSB, Santa Barbara, CA.


Dear World


Dear World is a team that travels the world to amplify the voices of individual stories through portraits. They have captured over 70,000 stories and been featured in USA Today, CNN, NBC, and Buzzfeed. Our stories are powerful because they connect us to each other. Learning about each other is vital to our success, as a community, a species, and a planet.

Here is my story:

Dear World,

I have faith.

Marriages end for many reasons. It’s difficult to say exactly what happened, but I chose to leave. I felt my life depended on it. The year my marriage ended was full of new beginnings, uncertainty, and transitions. For the first time in my life I felt I couldn’t be certain of anything, but through the changes I felt a calmness that I can only describe as faith. I had no idea what was ahead, but these words kept coming back to me – have faith.

I share my story because new beginnings are possible, sometimes we are stronger than we think we are, and there are always better days ahead. We are all one choice away from a completely different life.

“Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Why Diversity Matters

Diversity is a representation of racial and ethnic identity, age, cultural identity, religious and spiritual identity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, physical and mental ability, nationality, social and economic status, and political and ideological perspectives.* Diversity in higher education is important in order for our institutions to reflect our changing demographics, to increase access to higher education for greater numbers of students, and to prepare all students to contribute to a global society. However, the highest purpose of diversity in our institutions is related to our civic mission.

The civic mission of higher education speaks to the content in the curricular and co-curricular experience that challenges students to think about their role and responsibilities in society. Historically, education was seen as the key to creating the informed citizenry required for active democracy. Institutions were founded in part with a civic focus to cultivate future leaders to be civically engaged citizens.  Presently, diversity, namely interactions among different groups, is essential to fostering the academic and social growth necessary to promote civic engagement.

Research supports that diversity creates the best possible learning conditions for all students – majority and minority students. Diversity creates conditions critical to identity construction and cognitive growth  which are essential to achieving educational and civic outcomes. The success of our communities and country depends on citizens who can engage in civic innovation, address issues of public concern, and promote the quality of life in our communities through political and nonpolitical processes.

The link between diversity and learning outcomes is well-established. Research shows that students who experienced the most racial and ethnic diversity in classroom settings and in informal interactions with peers showed the greatest engagement in active thinking processes, growth in intellectual engagement and motivation, and growth in intellectual and academic skills. Research also supports that students educated in diverse classrooms learn to think in deeper and more complex ways, and are better prepared to become active participants in a pluralistic, democratic society (Gurin, Day, Hurtado, and Gurin, 2001).

Diversity improves the learning experience and contributes to the central goals of the university. However, students must have meaningful intergroup interactions. An increase in diversity may improve the probability that these interactions will occur, but this is not enough to create a significant difference in a student’s learning experience. In order to see significant benefits from diversity, there must be an increased quality and quantity of intergroup interactions.

College is a time and place for students to explore their identities as well as their relationship to the sociopolitical world. When students enter into diverse environments, they can either attempt to retreat to the familiar or seek new information. By seeking new information, they enter a state of disequilibrium – a temporary state where one must either develop a new schema or modify an existing schema. Developmental theorists explain that creating disequilibrium is key to promoting cognitive growth. Situations that create disequilibrium can include encounters with people who are unfamiliar to them or people who challenge them to act or think in new ways. Navigating these situations increases one’s sense of identity and their understanding of the social world.

As an educator, I have witnessed the cognitive changes that occur when students experience interactions with people who have had different life experiences and when students are confronted with the limitation of their point of view. In these interactions, they must do difficult cognitive and emotional work to understand how other people think and feel. These experiences encouraged critical thinking, helped students learn to communicate effectively with people of varied backgrounds, and prepared students to become good citizens in an increasingly complex, pluralistic society.

In 2006, I founded the Alternative Breaks program at Cal Poly, which has taken students to New Orleans, New York, Jamaica, and United Arab Emirates. I witnessed these students transformed by their experiences doing service in communities different from their own. The differences in culture, language, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and more, created opportunities for reflection and cognitive growth that changed these students in short periods.

Now, more than ever, universities must prepare students to contribute to society. Students need an understanding of diversity and social responsibility to be knowledgeable and ethical leaders. For these reasons and more, it is important to cultivate a campus community that represents and celebrates diversity. We need reflective spaces, intentional interactions, and formal and informal opportunities for students to engage in frequent, high-quality intergroup interactions.

* adapted from Standards of Professional Practice for Chief Diversity Officers.

Gurin, P., Dey, E., Hurtado, S., & Gurin, G.  (2002) Diversity and Higher Education: Theory and Impact on Educational Outcomes, Harvard Educational Review, 72 (3), 330-366.

Interfaith Diversity and the Future of Student Affairs


I recently returned from #ACPA15 in Tampa, Florida. It was a blast! I attended sessions on ADA changes, Twitter, coaching, leadership, and even blogging! The conference brought together student affairs professionals from around the country to Consider, Collaborate, Create, and Commit. All this took place against the amazing backdrop of the waterside Tampa Convention Center.

One of the conference’s keynote speakers was Eboo Patel. I especially enjoyed Patel’s message about the need for Interfaith Leadership. I have often reflected on the role of higher education in addressing religion as part of student identity development. As Patel said, “Student Affairs has made huge impacts on issues of race, gender, and sexuality. Student Affairs helps shape American democracy. How would the U.S. look if we focused on religion?”

Faith-based organizations provide important support for students during the transition to college, when faced with loss, and when exploring the deep issues that emerge during the college experience. In addition to supporting students in their spiritual development, we need to facilitate the dialogue around religious identity and diversity. This includes opportunities for engagement, meaningful interactions, and inspiring relationships across differences.

In 2011, I helped organized our campus involvement in the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. The initiative brought together students, faculty, staff, community members and faith-based organizations. Together, we engaged in community service projects that bridged religious and cultural lines. College is a time for students to explore spirituality, morals, beliefs, and even purpose and interfaith community service is a way for students to learn about and explore various faiths and contribute to the common good.

The United States is one of the world’s most religiously diverse nations. Patel reminds us it is important that Students Affairs professionals have the same frameworks, competencies, and tools to work within the realm of religious diversity as we do with ethnic diversity. Patel asked some hard questions. Why has Student Affairs not been more proactive about this? Is religious diversity too hard? Are there dimensions of religion that we are uncomfortable with? Is celebrating diversity only celebrating the differences you like?

I am struggling to answer those questions myself. Doing social justice work often requires a strong self-awareness and understanding. When I embarked on my personal journey to explore my own racial identity, I became a better advocate for ethnic diversity and social change. I believe the path to religious diversity will involve the same attention, research, and knowledge development. I am looking forward to the journey and hope to see interfaith diversity in the future of Student Affairs.

Thoughts on being a "model minority"

Today I was the MC at the Asian Pacific Islander Faculty and Staff Association (APIFSA) Professional Development Luncheon, which is one of my favorite events of the year. The APIFSA was formed by a small group of professionals who at one time or another had all attended a leadership institute for Asians in Higher Education. I attended the leadership institute in 2007. I was skeptical because although my mom is Chinese and she was born and raised in Thailand, I myself am only half Asian and often don’t feel like I fit the API stereotype in terms of appearance. However, at the institute I realized that my mom’s influence had a profound impact on the way I see the world. My values, personality, and daily interactions have been shaped by her strong cultural influences.

Ever heard of a Tiger Mom? Well that was my mom. I played the piano and violin. I was expected to practice every day. In my mom’s book, “A” was for Average. And I wasn’t just expected to receive A’s – I was expected to be number 1 in the class. There was no questioning whether or not I was smart enough or capable of being number 1, if I wasn’t number 1 it was either because I wasn’t putting in the effort or my teacher had made a mistake. In 7th grade when I transitioned to middle school, my mom found out I was placed in regular math instead of pre-algebra and she demanded that I be retested. And my favorite story is when I graduated from my Master’s program my mom gave me a graduation card with the pamphlet to a PhD program inserted inside.

Not all Asian moms are Tiger Moms. That’s because the Tiger Mom is a stereotype, just like the “model minority” is a stereotype. The model minority myth leads mainstream America to believe that as a group we have overcome racism and discrimination and achieved success, and we no longer struggle to access education or financial security. Sure…some APIs have achieved financial stability, and there are many Asians earning advanced degrees. But the model minority stereotype can be misleading and dangerous.

Even after being acknowledged as the “model minority,” Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been accused of being enemies, aliens, spies, and terrorists, and subjected to special reporting requirements, incarceration, and deportation. While there are varied and historical reasons for lumping APIs into one category, the individuals who comprise this group represent the full socio-economic spectrum, from the poor and underprivileged to the affluent and highly skilled.

API is a broad term that is typically applied to any person having origins in the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent, or Hawaii or other Pacific Islands – which includes over 40 different ethnic groups, such as Hmong, Laotian, Vietnamese, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Japanese, and peoples of Hawaii, Guam, and Samoa.
As an aggregate group, APIs are well represented in higher education. Asian American and Pacific Islander students make up 16 percent of the CSU student populations. In 2010, the CSU conferred more than 11,000 degrees to Asian students and 3,400 to Filipino and Pacific Islander students. These CSU graduates are helping to drive California’s aerospace, healthcare, entertainment, information technology, biomedical, international trade, education, and multimedia industries.

This should be a source of pride for our community, yet there is a myth that APIs are “taking over” higher education. The data shows that the increase in APIs in higher education has mirrored the increases found among other underrepresented populations during the same time period. This perception is created because APIs tend to be more concentrated in a small number of schools. There are over 4000 universities in the United States, yet 2/3 of all APIs are concentrated in just 200 institutions with nearly half of all APIs attending college in either California, New York, or Texas.

APIs are the fastest growing minority population in the United States. According to the 2010 Census, the Asian American population in the United States grew 46 percent between 2000 and 2010, faster than any other major race group in the country, including Hispanics. The Census Bureau’s latest population projections estimate APIs to reach 41 million by 2050. APIs represent about 6% of the US population and 6.9% of management and professional occupations.
However, while the API population is growing and becoming more educated…we still face challenges, and continue to consistently be underrepresented in leadership positions. While there are many API students doing well at the top of the academic curve, there are just as many struggling at the bottom of the curve who are being overlooked. There are significant differences in degree attainment between these 40+ sub-groups.

There are significant numbers of API students who struggle with poverty, who are English-language learners increasingly likely to leave school with rudimentary language skills, who are at risk of dropping out, who are subject to violence and discrimination on account of race, class, gender, ethnicity, or language. Yet the “model minority” myth continues and often shrouds the real needs of APIs.

Research also shows that APIs aspire to leadership at lower rates than other race groups. APIs continue to be under represented on the Board of Directors of Fortune 500 companies. In 2012, APIs held only 144 out of over 5,500 total board seats, which is only 2.6% of the total Fortune 500 board seats. In the nonprofit sector, only 47 of the top 100 nonprofits have any API representation on their boards. And APIs hold less than 3% of the total board seats in the top 100 nonprofits.

Why is this important? Let me go back to my Tiger mom. My mom may be highly critical and have high expectations, but she also came to this country as a teenager with little to her name other than her student scholarship. My mom was a first generation college student, and she built a successful business while taking care of our family and our extended family. My mom would haggle over the price of a pair of socks, but she is also the most generous woman I know. She came to the US alone to attend high school, and she worked hard and sacrificed to be where she is now.

Whether you had a tiger mom or not, I guarantee that you are where you are today because someone (a teacher, an aunt or uncle, a friend, or maybe someone you’ve never met) has stepped up and maybe even sacrificed for you. This is why today is one of my favorite days of the year. Each year an accomplished leader in higher education comes to our campus to offer mentorship, share inspirational words, and remind us of our responsibility. We have a responsibility to be that person to someone else. Be a leader, a mentor, a role model. Find opportunities to take risks and practice your leadership skills. Volunteer in your community. Whether you’re passionate about advocating for APIs or another cause, I urge you to put your education and position of influence to use to improve the lives of others.