College of Ethnic Studies dean celebrates the past, looks to the future

A person with a bookshelf in the background.

Amy Sueyoshi, dean of the College of Ethnic Studies.

Dean Amy Sueyoshi reflects on the college’s 50th anniversary and the impact ethnic studies can have on students’ lives

This week, San Francisco State University is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its groundbreaking College of Ethnic Studies (CoES) with a series of events on campus. Amy Sueyoshi, the college’s current dean, recently sat down to talk about what the anniversary means to her, her vision for CoES and more.

What does the 50th anniversary mean to you?

It represents a half century of incredible efforts from staff, faculty and supporters of CoES and its curriculum. We would never have come this far without everyone’s commitment to educational equity and our love for our communities.

What’s your vision for CoES?

CoES has committed itself to four core values — racial and economic equity, promoting an environment in which students’ basic needs are met, advancing academic success through community engagement and empowering students to build social movements. Our vision is to bring these core values not only to students within our majors but to all students across the entire University who take our courses as part of their general education.

We offer up to 9,000 seats across more than 170 courses each semester. Thus, our goals are to continue building on effective pedagogy or high-impact practices and to expand our reach to underserved communities. For example, we proposed quantitative reasoning courses in ethnic studies to better engage students completing lower division general education. We are also developing an online ethnic studies completion program for the one million Californians who completed some college courses but had to stop due to work, family or personal commitments. Equal access to baccalaureate degrees is crucial not only for individual financial stability but also for the socioeconomic health of California.

What inspired you to get into the field of ethnic studies?

My mom was active in the Japanese American community, which taught me the importance of community building and service. She educated me to be both proud and aware of my obligations as an American of both Japanese and Okinawan descent. As a young child, I learned that we must not forget our community struggle and we must always push back against tyranny.

As an undergraduate student, I was more formally introduced to the field of ethnic studies through my senior thesis project on Angel Island, the West Coast immigration station that processed and detained mostly Asian migrants. As I did my preliminary research, I found mounds of books on Asian American history. I had recently clawed my way out of academic probation, and these publications further empowered me to feel my history and existence mattered. I decided I wanted to pursue ethnic studies and history to make a difference in people’s lives, particularly students such as myself who might be struggling to find their place in higher education.

Why is it important to have ethnic studies in higher education?

We’re seeing data that shows successfully passing ethnic studies courses is associated with improved performance of college students across the campus. The University’s Office of Institutional Research revealed that SF State students who have majors from CoES had higher retention and graduation rates than the average across all 23 campuses of the California State University system. The research also found that students who took ethnic studies courses even if their major was outside of CoES had higher graduation rates at SF State. These findings underscore the value and need for ethnic studies for all students.