Aina on Obama

The Director of Pomona College’s Asian American Resource Center (AARC), Sefa Aina, was recently selected as a member of President Barack Obama’s Commission on Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders. TSL sat down with Aina earlier this week to discuss his new position and his path to Pomona.

Aina, who has worked at Pomona for five years, originally applied to be Associate Director of the AARC before taking up his current post. Before coming to Pomona, Aina worked at the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA, where he taught a Leadership Engagement Class to “get [students] thinking about identity” and reaching out to their community.

Aina said that his objective at Pomona is similar, but that the environment is different, describing Pomona College as a “bubble.”

“There are very few partners in the community” to work with for community outreach, he said. In Los Angeles, the situation was much different—organizations were everywhere, and it was easier to get kids involved. “In this area, you have churches or high schools. You have to create the opportunities.” Despite the difficulty in breaking out of the Pomona bubble, Aina praised students for being “very passionate” about causes and outreach and for “thinking outside-the-box,” which he cited as reasons that he likes working here.

Aina grew up in San Diego, though much of his family is from American Samoa. He attended UCLA as an undergraduate, and is currently working toward a masters degree there. He said his career has “stayed in higher education” because he likes the passion and the ambition of the students. However, he said that the value of getting “knocked down” and working to pick yourself back up while working for a cause is frequently lost on students at places like Pomona.

Aina was discovered as a candidate for the Commission after a friend and former member of the commission under president Bill Clinton recommended him for the position. He got some phone calls, met with Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan, and had to go through an intense screening process. Even now, Aina senses that he is being watched from Washington. Examples abound: he was asked about what he said on a radio show years ago in college, a time when he was “angrier,” ranting on equality and rights for minorities. Now, Aina says that any events he attends are vetted, supposedly to make sure what he talks about does not reflect unfavorably on the Obama administration.

Aina said that all three Commissions since the Clinton Administration have been different. Obama’s, he explained, focuses more on grassroots work and tapping into local resources than prior Commissions. Aina described the members of the commission as active, hardworking people, some of whom are very publicly visible.

One such person is Hines Ward, an American football player who was the first Korean American to win a Super Bowl MVP Award. Ward used the resulting media attention to bring about change in Korea, where he set up a foundation to help mixed-race children (like himself) who face discrimination.

For his part, Aina is busy planning and attending events in the area. Aina explained that when you Google “obesity,” the results hit close-to-home for him, explaining that the countries that tend to pop up a lot are American Samoa and the United States. Obesity will be the focus of an event that Aina is organizing at UCLA on Apr. 7.

“The First Lady is invited,” he said, adding that the media attention she could provide could help bring attention to the issue.

Jillian Michaels, a personal trainer widely known for her appearance on “The Biggest Loser” and “Losing It With Jillian,” will also be present at the event, which will include a health fair featuring health care professionals.

At Pomona, Aina said he believes students too often conceptualize what the world needs and learn about people less fortunate than they without experiencing what it is like to help them directly. Aina hopes to remedy this by finding and creating opportunities for students to get involved with the community and to help the underprivileged.

One example of Aina’s work is a program he set up for college students to tutor children at a Tongan Church in the area. Aina wants students to stop taking what they have for granted. He asks the question “what are you putting back” after getting such a special education?

“Being more invested in a community makes you more invested in the college you attend,” he said.

Despite the backing of a governmental commission, Aina said that his work “can continue to survive” without it. He said that his loyalties ultimately lie with the communities he works in. He feels invested in the students he interacts with on a daily basis, his goal being to “create opportunities that match students’ skill sets and interests in helping people in the world around them.”

“You can change the world if you want to,” Aina said, but you have to “ground yourself” and be realistic. “[There is a] thin line between being empowered and being entitled.”

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