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How the Backgrounds of the AACC's Leaders Inform Their Work

An outside observer visiting the Rutgers Asian American Cultural Center (AACC), one of four Cultural Centers in the Division of Student Affairs, might be forgiven for thinking that the varied backgrounds of its professional staff—which cover a range of gender and ethnic identities—were the norm in such other spaces.

However, those familiar with other Cultural Centers know that that is not the case.

Jacob Chacko, Shaheena Shahid, Naima Chowdhury, LaToshia Wells
The professional staff of the Asian American Cultural Center. From L-R: Jacob Chacko, director; Shaheena Shahid, senior program coordinator; Naima Chowdhury, assistant director; LaToshia Wells, administrative assistant. Photo courtesy of Aidan Andrucyk from @aidanmaphotography

“I’ve been in Cultural Center work now for almost six years,” said Dr. Jacob Chacko, who identifies as a queer Indian-American man. “In Asian-American spaces, the staff has predominantly been either East Asian or Southeast Asian, without many South Asian folks represented.” 

In this context, the AACC’s staff members’ various backgrounds—Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Black—couple with the experiences that they bring to their roles to have a big impact on the way that they understand their work at the AACC. 

“As someone who was a first-generation minority student, I try to serve as a resource for students and for other staff members because I understand what it means to be the minority in a predominantly white space,” said LaToshia Wells, the administrative assistant of the AACC, who identifies as Black. 

Wells’s comments were echoed by other staff members of the AACC, who are focused on providing a constructive and healthy space for their students to grow. 

“We unapologetically decolonize our work and our conversations with students,” said Naima Chowdhury, assistant director of the AACC, who identifies as Bangladeshi-American. “When it comes to supervision, my leadership style is not punitive, patriarchal, or hierarchical.” 

“My only goal is to make students feel very, very empowered. I want them to feel more powerful than actual directors and assistant directors.” 

In its work, the AACC advises Asian, Pacific Islander, and Desi-American (APIDA) student groups, runs programs on Asian identity and culture, connects students through a mentor and a mentee program, and maintains a welcoming student space on 49 Joyce Kilmer Avenue, among much else.

small paintings line a wall in the Asian American Cultural Center
Paintings line the wall within the Asian American Cultural Center.

For students, these programs and activities often have much more impact than they anticipated. 

“I came across the AACC because I was looking for a smaller community within Rutgers,” said Amena Samia, a sophomore majoring in business analytics and information technology and a mentor coordinator. “Then I joined the mentee program, where I was paired up with a mentor, and our conversations helped me decide that I wanted to become a business major.”  

“I did not expect the mentoring program to help me find my career path, but it did.” 

Many students also find a sense of comfort at the AACC that might not be readily available elsewhere. 

“I feel like this is my second home,” said Neda Sayyed, a sophomore and a senior intern at the AACC. “It’s the only place where I can feel safe in being myself. It has amazing resources, and it’s a place for students to lean, rely, and depend upon.” 

Additionally, students involved with the AACC are also included in their decision-making process of the cultural center, giving them a chance to provide input into the programs and initiatives that will affect their lives. 

"When they have an idea, they will include us, ask for our opinions, and talk it through with us. They value our thoughts," said Serena Li, a senior majoring in human resource management and a student manager at the AACC. "They do all of this even though we're technically their employees."

Student employees prepare the decorations for Queer Garba. From L-R: Judy Yeung, Om Patil, Neda Sayyed, and Mitra Raveendran
Student employees prepare the decorations for Queer Garba. From L-R: Judy Yeung, Om Patil, Neda Sayyed, and Mitra Raveendran

In their work with students, the AACC’s professional staff also highlighted the ‘model minority’ myth that many students face in their personal and academic lives. 

“Since society has generally placed our students into the ‘model minority’ role, many students do not realize that they can ask for help and access resources,” said Shaheena Shahid, senior program coordinator, who identifies as Pakistani-American. 

“We make sure that we focus on the whole person, strategically addressing any issues that might be present with them or in the community,” she continued. 

Moving forward, the AACC is planning several large events for the spring semester, including a Pan-Asian Lunar New Year ceremony, the opening ceremony for APIDA Heritage Month, APIDA Gala leadership awards, and APIDA Graduation. 

APIDA Graduation, a new event planned for the end of the spring semester, is especially important to the AACC’s students and leadership. 

“In 250 years at Rutgers, APIDA students have never had their own graduation, even though they now make up about 25% of the student population,” said Wells. “Although the sacrifices of our APIDA-identified students and their families have not been recognized in the past, we hope that this is the first year of an annual ceremony that our students deserve and want.” 

In the same vein, the staff sees an improvement of diversity at Rutgers—and a more equitable allocation of resources—as crucial to fulfilling the promise of a beloved community. 

“Students get intimidated when they don’t see people who look like them in positions of leadership,” said Chowdhury. “All of our students should get opportunities to excel, but the fact is that there are barriers to our students accessing resources at Rutgers, from internships and paid programs to financial opportunities and support.” 

“The four of us represent a very, very small example of what Rutgers should have in terms of outreach and representation, not what Rutgers really has right now.” 

However, despite these challenges, the professional staff at the AACC aims to continue nurturing their students so that they can enjoy a successful time at Rutgers—and in the future. 

“Our goal is to prepare these students for a future that they can create, not for them to go into what’s already created,” said Chacko. “We’re preparing our students for their future in the workforce, as well as a reality in which they can be their true authentic selves.”

Om Patil, Mitra Raveendran, LaToshia Wells, Shaheena Shahid, Naima Chowdhury, Dr. Jacob Chacko; from L-R, front row: Judy Yeung, Neda Sayyed, Serena Li, Samantha Agtarap, Noah Novera
The AACC's staff and students pose for a picture. From L-R, back row: Om Patil, Mitra Raveendran, LaToshia Wells, Shaheena Shahid, Naima Chowdhury, Dr. Jacob Chacko; from L-R, front row: Judy Yeung, Neda Sayyed, Serena Li, Samantha Agtarap, Noah Novera

The Asian American Cultural Center is located at 49 Joyce Kilmer Avenue on Livingston Campus. You can find out more about AACC programs and events by visiting their website or following them on Instagram at @ruaacc.