A team without a leader is really no team at all. Associate Dean and Director of the AARC, Kehaulani Vaughn, a.k.a. “Kehau,” has undoubtedly played a paramount role in maintaining the AARC amidst the chaotic institutional and political transitions that took place (and continue to do so) throughout this year.
Besides her leadership role at the AARC, Kehau is a visiting faculty member in Asian American Studies at The Claremont Colleges. She has brought to the AARC her extensive experiences and research interests in Asian American studies, community based research, and advising Asian American and Pacific Islander student communities. Her current research explores Pacific Island Studies, Indigenous epistemologies, Indigenous education, and decolonial practices and pedagogies. At the Claremont Colleges she has taught a number of classes, including Pacific Islander Indigenous Studies, Decolonizing Education, and Community Studies. Kehau is also the advisor for the Native American Indigenous Student organization as well as a participant in a 5C working group to establish Native Studies at the Claremont Colleges. A nationally recognized speaker and scholar on higher education and Pacific Islander education, Kehau consults for numerous organizations, including the Gates Millennium Scholarship Fund, Asian Pacific American Scholarship Fund and OCA. Prior to coming to Pomona, Kehau coordinated a federally-funded Student Support Services Trio program, worked with the Native American community in Southern California in regards to educational Initiatives, including Tribal TANF and the Young Native Scholars Program. Her passion around higher educational access especially amongst Pacific Islanders and other Indigenous communities led her to become a co-founder and current board member of Empowering Pacific Islander Communities (EPIC). Working with others in EPIC, she developed and facilitated the EPIC Scholars program, which was a culturally relevant leadership development program that addressed the retention and persistence of Pacific Islander college students.
To honor and acknowledge the tremendous impact that Kehau has made on AAPI and Indigenous communities both on and off campus, we present to you an interview celebrating her achievements and reflections about her work.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
As a first generation college student, I’ve always been involved in the creation of outreach and resilience programs because I have directly benefited from them myself. As a Native Hawaiian, I’ve always been one of the few Native Hawaiian and more broadly Pacific Islander or Native person on any given college campus as a student, faculty, and staff, it has inspired my involvement in these types of programs even further. To create pipelines for underrepresented communities will have long lasting effects for those communities. To work in collaboration with communities in order to create community engaged research that can be used to advocate for services and influence policies is an empowering tool for all. I wanted to use my education for a greater good and found myself creating partnerships between campuses and communities. I have engaged and worked and have a background in both.
What made you want to work at the AARC?
I wanted to work at the AARC because I had taught at the Claremont Colleges for two and half years prior and was inspired by students overall and in particular students who I interacted with that worked at the AARC. I was attracted to the AARC’s mission, which had a long history of holistic programming coupled with community engagement. In lots of ways it incorporated a type of praxis that was beyond the theoretical contributions found in the classroom. These intersectional understandings are what undergird the creation and continuance of Ethnic Studies programs including Asian American Studies, Pacific Island Studies, and Native/Indigenous Studies and the many programs that center narratives and research that are often confined in the margins of the academy and or erased.
When did you decide that you wanted to get involved in this kind of work?
As a Pacific Islander woman, I wanted to challenge and expand previously held notions of Pacific Islanders in the academy and even within the Asian American and Pacific Islander community and Asian American Studies. Since we are severely underrepresented within higher education, I found my passion in engaging in work that takes intersectional approaches and more nuanced understandings of the communities that we come from whether we are ourselves identify with or even labeled. Since I come from an Indigenous community myself I always felt it was important to acknowledge and work with our Native host. Since Claremont and many of the higher education institutions I have attended are in the Los Angeles and Southern California area, I’ve always found a responsibility in also creating relationships with the local Native American communities in the area. As a Pacific Islander, I feel that this is part of the protocol for me to work in the area. I’ve also taught Pacific Islander and Indigenous Studies courses and this has not only attracted students who want to take courses in Pacific Island Studies, but also engages in Native/Indigenous Studies. This has attracted Native students at the Claremont Colleges and I’ve come to advise the Native American Student Association as well as the Indigenous Peer Mentoring Program (IPMP).
What is your vision for the AARC? How does the AARC complement/challenge/unsettle the Claremont Colleges/more “traditional” ways of learning that the colleges endorse?
Working with students at the AARC and the students at the Claremont Colleges that I have advised from taking my courses has really inspired my leadership and scholarship. I see myself as someone who is there to assist in creating space for students who remain resilient despite the long histories and disproportionate struggles for their families and themselves to get to places of higher education. It is with that resilience that I strive to be a leader who can be adaptable and learn from the many lessons that our student leaders face inside and outside the classroom. Because students in the AARC engage in work that benefits both the on campus and off campus community within a shared goal of closing the gap between the two, I cannot help but be inspired by our students.
How do you feel about being part of an all-WOC team?
In addition to our students, I am thankful and grateful for an amazing and supportive staff that works hard to support our students and each other in carrying out the mission of the AARC and for the overall student success at Pomona. Also, both are extremely talented and have amazing academic and professional backgrounds. To be amongst two other women professional staff that are Tongan and Filipina is truly amazing considering the underrepresentation of these communities within higher education.