Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The Impact of My AAPI Mentors

Guest Post – Jason Lacsmana, Director, Programs and Partnerships

Last year, during AAPI heritage month, I shared how my parents instilled a sense of responsibility to share our history and advocate for equity. I am grateful that the leadership I have experienced started with my family. Because of this foundation, my mind was open and willing to be mentored at other times. As I frequently mention, my work in the community feels like both a passion and a responsibility. Just as I honor my parents, who passed down their Filipino heritage, I carry forward the teachings of others who took the time to share their histories, knowledge, and experiences.

I started as a pre-med student at UCSD but realized that was someone else’s dream for me, not mine. So, nearing the end of undergrad, unsure of what I should do next with my double major in History and Neuroscience, I explored the next chapter of my life. I remember flipping through a binder at our career center and seeing a program for a master’s in public health. Having an interest in health and history and a curiosity to uncover why things were the way they are and what factors led them to be that way – it seemed like maybe this could be a fit. So, on a whim, I applied to UCLA, some other schools, and Banana Republic (just in case).


The Impact of My AAPI Mentors

When I was accepted into the MPH program at UCLA, I still didn’t know what this would mean for my future. It feels weird to say, but looking back, this whim introduced me to two mentors who would further refine my passion and help define my career. The first was my professor at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, Dr. Marjorie Kagawa-Singer, who now serves as the Interim Director of UCLA Asian American Studies Center. She is a monumental figure in the field and was responsible for one of my first understandings of public health and the health needs in the AANHPI community. In addition, Dr. Kagawa-Singer encouraged activism in her students by taking an interest in us, answering our questions, and welcoming conversation.

The second person who impacted me was Mary Anne Foo, Founder and Executive Director of OCAPICA. Dr. Kagawa-Singer invited Mary Anne as a guest speaker in one of my first-year classes at UCLA. She had recently started OCAPICA and spoke about the organization’s mission and work to improve the health and social and economic well-being of Asian and Pacific Islanders in the OC. I stayed after class to talk with her – interested in their outreach and advocacy work. Later that year, they needed field interns, and Mary Anne invited me to lead a new outreach program for AANHPI men. That was the summer of 1999. The internship led to eight years of working directly with Mary Anne, the fantastic team at OCAPICA, and many others. Mary Anne wasn’t just a mentor, advisor, and collaborator, but became a great friend.

What is remarkable about Dr. Kagawa-Singer and Mary-Anne is their innovation in their advocacy and their desire for actualized power from our community. It may not seem impressive now, but in the 1990s, it was new – at least for me. The innovations imparted by these two women are not just history taught in books or the distant past. It’s the history and heritage of people like them that take the time to pass wisdom and knowledge down. They ask and answer questions and seek that of the people around them. The experiences they share help me to understand and appreciate the responsibility of passing on an understanding and appreciation of my Asian American, and especially Filipino American, heritage.

I’m curious – who were your mentors, and why? Have you passed on what you learned from them?