If you’re looking for a leader to advocate for Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), you’d be wise to start with Kiran Ahuja.
A strong AAPI voice among our nation’s top leaders, Ahuja leads the charge for the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI), housed in the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. As executive director of the WHIAAPI, Kiran advises federal agency leadership on the implementation and coordination of federal programs as they relate to AAPIs across executive departments and agencies.
Well known as a leader among national and grassroots AAPI and women’s rights organizations, Kiran served as the founding executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) from 2003-08, where she built NAPAWF from an all-volunteer organization to one with a paid professional staff as well as organized a strong, vibrant network of AAPI women community leaders across the country. She attended Spelman College, an historically black college, and the University of Georgia School of Law.
We recently asked Kiran five questions about her college journey and what advice she would give AAPI students pursuing higher education. Here’s what she had to say.
Q. Can you tell us where you went to college and what you studied? Why did you choose that school?
A. I first went to Emory University, and then transferred to Spelman College. Frankly, I felt a bit lost at Emory. It was a time in my life, after leaving Savannah, Ga., when I was a little unsure of myself.
It was interesting: I wasn’t expecting to feel out of place, since Emory was my first choice because I wanted to study political science and they had a great program. Even though I was really active in high school–held leadership positions and was active in lots of activities — I felt really disconnected from the people and the school, so I wasn’t very active in student life at Emory.
I think a lot of it had to do with feeling a bit lost and trying to find a place where I was truly comfortable. My friends encouraged me to look into Spelman College; initially, I was hesitant because it is an historically black college and I am Asian American. But through their encouragement, I visited the school, and fell in love with the professors and students.
It is a small, all-girls college that tailors its programming to building women’s leadership, intellect, and confidence. Going to Spelman also exposed me to African American history and culture that has become invaluable, and influenced my career goals. I continued my major in political science and graduated summa cum laude!
Q. What advice would you give AAPI students to help them choose the right college to fit their needs?
A. I think it is really important to visit schools, and spend time with the students and professors. Read the professors’ bios. Is there someone who inspires you, someone you admire for his/her work and interests? Also, try to learn about the school culture.
You can tell a lot about the school from their clubs, school activities, and sports–where their priorities lie. Do their activities emphasize the importance of diversity and inclusion, as an example?
I also think understanding the school’s history and mission is important. One thing I liked about Spelman was its inspiring history and committed alumni.
Q. How would you describe yourself before and after college?
A. So, I have always been type A, a bit of an over-achiever, teacher’s pet, whatever you want to call it. I prided myself on getting good grades, doing well in school, and being involved at school and in my community.
I sought teachers’ and adults’ approval all the time. I am not sure why, but when I got to college, I probably invested too much time in my social life.
I still got good grades, but I really think this had to do with wanting to feel accepted and liked by my peers. College life was also a time when I had to come to terms with who I was–Indian, female, immigrant, person of color, etc.
I definitely became more politically oriented in college-trying to figure out my place in American society. After college, I got more involved in racial and social justice issues.
Q. What is the best lesson you learned while in college?
A. I would say the best lesson is picking a college that feels right for you, not what is expected or what your friends or family think. At first, I was really nervous of what the Indian community would think about me — attending an historically black college, but after spending time there — I didn’t care.
It was such a nurturing environment, and everyone was so accepting of me, that I felt like I was at home. Also, it is not about the “name recognition” of the school, but about the people that make up the college and the support you receive.
Q. What inspires you to make a change in your community?
A. I am inspired by so many people. My most recent inspiration (and not trying to win favor with my boss) is the First Lady; her speech after the screening of “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete” at the White House was truly inspiring. She is launching her own education initiative, and spoke about her commitment to encouraging students to stay in school — supporting all the Misters and Petes in the world who struggle everyday against all odds to get an education. She talked a lot about how these kids have grit, resilience, and courage, and if they can make it through difficult circumstances, filling out a FAFSA form will be a piece of cake!
I am really moved by her commitment to young people–she is really passionate about them, and is using her role as First Lady to speak directly to them, encouraging them by sharing her own experiences of working hard to get a good education and what a good education can bring you. It reminded me how important it is to give back, to remember our own experiences, and share them generously when we can.
Learn more about the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders’ work on education, including with Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs).
The “Five Questions With…” blog series — presented by the “We’re the Changing Face of America” campaign — features the stories of students, public officials, business professionals, entertainers, and other notable Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) leaders.
These individuals are sharing their experiences in higher education to help inspire today’s generation of AAPI students to reach for success.
The “We’re the Changing Face of America” campaign is a national public awareness effort dedicated to increasing access and completion among Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students, the fastest — growing student population in U.S. colleges and universities.
Launched in March 2013 by the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund (APIASF) and the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education (CARE)–the leading AAPI student — and research-focused organizations, respectively — the campaign works through strategic partnerships to help ensure that access and success challenges experienced by the AAPI student population do not continue.
The campaign supports the Partnership for Equity in Education through Research project, which works to improve educational outcomes for AAPI students.
What five questions would you ask AAPI leaders about their college experience? Let us know by sending an email to [email protected]!