Students’ dedicated work earns DEI Champion awards

Winna Pham ’22 and Suheyla Yoksuloglu ’21

Winna Pham ’22 and Suheyla Yoksuloglu ’21 are University of the Pacific’s 2021 Student Champion of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) recipients.

Winna Pham ’22 and Suheyla Yoksuloglu ’21 are University of the Pacific’s 2021 Student Champion of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) recipients.

The Champion awards recognize Pacificans who exemplify the university’s values of DEI. They are presented by the University Committee for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the student, faculty, and staff categories.

Pham is a third-year dental student. Yoksuloglu is a senior biology major with minors in ethnic studies and gender studies.

Pham and Yoksuloglu shared their thoughts in recent interviews. 

How did you react to receiving the DEI Champion award?

Yoksuloglu: Honestly, I’m still a little bit in shock that I was even thought of for this award. My academic adviser, Dr. Ajna Rivera, sent me an email after I had finished my finals and I thought that I was in trouble. Then I saw her and (UCDEI co-chair) Marshea Pratt on the Zoom call and was speechless. I would also like to take this time to recognize the students that created Pacific Brave Black Voices. Zaunamaat Nuru-Bates, Semaj Martin and Nakylah Houston are incredible and were able to talk to our university president and enact some changes on our campus, and I want that to be highlighted.

Pham: I never expected to receive university-level recognition for simply speaking out and acting on the issues I was most passionate about. It means so much to have my efforts recognized by my peers who nominated me for this award. I also want to mention that I could not have participated in so many initiatives without the support I received from my school’s diversity committee members, Melissa Yamanaka and Stan Constantino, who work tirelessly to cultivate a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment at our school.

What motivated you to become involved in DEI initiatives?

Yoksuloglu: I have always been intrinsically interested in DEI work and initiatives. I’m the product of two immigrant parents who are from different cultures and backgrounds. When I was younger, I was a very voracious reader, and novelists such as Audre Lorde, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison were my teachers. Their work during the civil rights movements and in LGBTQ+ efforts were catalysts in my involvement.  

Pham: I never specifically thought about becoming involved with diversity, equity and inclusion. I grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada, where all my friends and loved ones come from extremely diverse racial, gender, sexual and economic backgrounds. From a young age, I experienced and witnessed firsthand the injustices my community suffered from and speaking on these issues often came from necessity. My passion regarding these topics is fueled by my desire to protect those around me. I am not simply becoming involved in DEI initiatives; I am fighting for the rights and safety of those I love.

What was the first DEI-focused project that you were involved in? How has your understanding of and work with DEI projects evolved since?

Yoksuloglu: The first tangible DEI-focused project or group I was involved in was a high school club with some of my friends who taught me about radical change and social justice movements. Growing up as a first-generation American kid, assimilation is the game unfortunately. I often found myself complacent or ill-informed in important movements when I was younger because it took educating, un-learning, and time to sit down and evaluate why I had these attitudes. My understanding and work with DEI projects have grown vastly since then. Ignorance is not bliss; it is silence and complacency. The evolution and growth of our society must include DEI projects, and I’m so grateful to be able to do that.

Pham: Is running a social justice blog and answering anonymous questions on Tumblr considered a DEI project? If so, my first DEI-focused project was in the 10th grade. I used to love reading about intersectional feminist theory as a teenager, and I would spend hours and hours answering questions like “What are microaggressions?” and “Does the wage gap really exist?” I used to engage in a lot of online debates when I was younger, but I haven’t done that in a long time. Much of my DEI work nowadays is focused on equity for historically marginalized identities in academia. Some of the projects I’m currently working on involve mentorship and creating inclusive spaces specifically for low-income first-generation college students in graduate programs. Rather than debating others on whether these issues exist, I spend my time doing the work and letting the outcomes speak for themselves.

What DEI-focused project has been most meaningful to you? Is there an experience or accomplishment that stands out from the project?

Yoksuloglu: Being part of Title IX Peer Education. Right before the pandemic started, my co-worker and I were working on making a lactation space in the Gender Equity Center for pregnant/nursing students who needed a quiet area. I’m hoping to continue that project in the fall when we’re back. Having (Associate Director for Gender Equity and the Pride Center) Colleen Smith as a mentor and a constant guide really helped me figure out DEI projects that are important to me and have helped me plan for how I would like to further these projects in my career later.

Pham: During my time as the social media chair for my school’s American Student Dental Association chapter, I started a spotlight series for students with marginalized identities. I was constantly awed, inspired and humbled by the stories they shared with me. I think it’s so important for incoming and pre-dental students to see there are others before them who have overcome or are fighting the barriers associated with attending graduate school. The series also taught me so much about my own class, and I saw how far a little vulnerability can go for strengthening interpersonal connections.

How do you hope Pacific will continue to expand DEI programs?

Yoksuloglu: I hope to see DEI-related programs, initiatives and courses not put on the back burner any longer. Minors such as ethnic studies, gender studies and queer studies should be highlighted in course catalogs as more than just classes to fill a diversity requirement or minor options. They should be readily available. Knowledge is power, and learning about the history of DEI, or the lack of it, is important. I also hope that Pacific will not rely solely on just minority students or staff to do all the heavy lifting in DEI initiatives. We are a community, and communities are families.

Pham: I hope Pacific continues to recognize the barriers so many students face in academia and centers these values in their education long after these topics are no longer headlining popular media. I hope DEI becomes a meshwork and basis for education rather than just programs to expand on.

Do you have any advice for students hoping to become more involved in DEI projects?

Yoksuloglu: It’s okay if DEI can feel emotionally taxing. It is exhausting at times to explain, teach and make change. The internet is free, and your time is not. Rest, recharge and indulge in self-care. The cause will be ready for you tomorrow after you have taken time to take care of you, so you can take care of each other. Also, I promise there is no one else with my name. So please, look for me on campus and we can discuss and get a coffee and talk about how to get work done.

Pham: The values of diversity, equity and inclusion can be easily woven into the seams of our everyday lives. They need not exist only in individual projects. Any organization, leadership position or role has room for these values if you can find the bravery in yourself to speak on them. Also, the small stuff is important too. I think a conversation with a peer, watching a historical documentary, or even simply posting on social media are all DEI projects for ourselves.