Tracy Lachica Buenavista’s charisma and commitment towards revolutionary mentoring and servant leadership

“All good teachers understand that the essence of teaching centers on human interactions, especially between teachers and students, but most college professors struggle with how to do this. Here’s one thing that Tracy [Buenavista] does each semester that amazes us. In the first class session, she has all students introduce themselves to her and their classmates. After 30+ students’ introductions, Buenavista goes row by row, reciting each student’s first name from memory. Through this one action, she lets each student know that she has taken the time to listen, to learn their name, and to personally welcome each into her class.” – A Cal State University, Northridge (CSUN) student, as told to Prof. Glenn Omatsu, 2018

 Charism is defined as an extraordinary power given to a Christian by the Holy Spirit for the good of the church. It is like an academic professor’s charisma to mentor their students to reach for their life’s goals. It is akin to students who did not even view themselves as probable candidates for higher education, yet are surprised when they actualize their innate potentials, from the mentoring given by Glenn Omatsu and this feature article’s subject, Dr. Tracy Lachica Buenavista, Ph.D.

 I once wrote about Glenn Omatsu as the quintessential mentor, effective academic teacher and unselfish life coach at CSUN to Black, Latino, Filipino, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, White, gay or transgender students, and regardless of any religious background. 

 One can count on Omatsu’s heart to be a warm welcoming space, a soulful home to seek wisdom from, but mostly to even recognize one’s own innate strengths. Was it because he was keenly aware that he was raised by a village of community-centered hearts, which includes mentors like Ho Nguyen, Kazu and Tak Iiijima, Clarence Spear, Grace Lee Boggs, Yuri Kochiyama, Philip Vera Cruz, K.W. Lee, Yuji Ichioka, Mo Nishida and Russell Leong, and even relatively unknown individuals, 60 of whom are listed in his essay on “Listening to the Small Voice Speaking the Truth,” listing Kathy and Mark Masaoka, including this writer?

 Revolutionary mentoring and servant leadership

Omatsu’s example calls to mind Buenavista, also a professor, and who she is to her colleagues, her students and her chair. 

Buenavista with students from CSUN’s Asian American Studies Pathways Project
Photo by Clement Lai

Gina Masequesnay, Ph.D., past chair of the department of Asian American Studies, had this to say, “Tracy is a wonderful colleague and an excellent student mentor and professor. She is efficient, prolific and student-oriented. She is well respected by colleagues and is one of the leaders in her field. CSUN AAS is very lucky to have Tracy contribute to our department. She is engaged in students’ success. Her research is on what matters to our communities. She models and mentors excellence for students, staff and faculty and just won CSUN’s Outstanding Faculty Award [in 2018].”

 CSUN’s Faculty Senate chose Buenavista as one of the Outstanding Faculty Awardees, based on her teaching, research, and service achievements in both Asian American studies and education. She conducts research in “critical race work to address the complex experiences of racially minoritized communities and examines the potential of higher education to transform the material conditions for marginalized people.” Her scholarly work has advocated for the educational rights of immigrant students and contributes to the advancement of CSUN’s goals of diversity, inclusive excellence and quality education.

 Her prescient research in “’White’ Washing in American Education: The New Culture Wars in Ethnic Studies” (2016) is a two-volume anthology on contemporary attacks against ethnic studies. She completed a new book, “Education at War: the Fight for Students of Color at America’s Public Schools.” It calls to mind the War on Truth, propounded in “Fear: Trump in the White House” by Bob Woodward. 

 Her award was made even more meaningful when her former students, Martín Alberto Gonzalez and Bhernard Tila, attributed their present successes to the effective mentoring by Buenavista.

In one of her Facebook photos, Buenavista is shown with college undergraduates attending a graduate school 101 seminar, that higher education though often regarded as “the ivory tower,” is within these students’ reach, and even though they might find it difficult to decipher the academic language used, as in CRT. Could that be short for a coronary procedure? Perhaps! It can be construed as a reversal of closed hearts, and narrowly-programmed minds unable to see others and their meaningful contributions. 

Not, in Buenavista’s classroom where everyone is welcome!  

In an email to this writer, Gonzalez wrote, “I met Dra. Tracy Lachica Buenavista through a Race, Racism, and Critical Thinking course I took with her in the Asian American Studies department [in] my second year at CSUN. Dra. Buenavista made a tremendous impact on my educational and personal trajectory, since six years ago. I am now a Ph.D. candidate at Syracuse University. Through her mentorship, I got to believe that I could do more in school and even, life. She wrote a strong letter of recommendation for me and helped me scout Ph.D. programs. She guided me through the graduate school application process and played a key role in helping me decide, after countless hours of seeking her advice. Because I come from a mixed-status family, I reached out to Dra. Buenavista where to access information about citizenship. I attribute much of my academic and social success to her.

Photo by Jordan Beltran Gonzales

 “Additionally, Dra. Buenavista inspired me to do more for my community. She instilled in me a profound sense of social justice to advocate for myself and for others in need of help. At CSUN, she conceptualized and wrote the Campus Quality Fee (CQF) grant for the EOP CSUN DREAM Center in order to employ staff to provide specialized services and establish a sanctuary-type space for undocumented students and other students with marginalized identities. I am continually impressed and inspired by Dra. Buenavista’s accolades and accomplishments with respect to everything she does for the students and her community. She practices what she preaches. I am very grateful and privileged to call her my mentor.”

In a one-on-one interview with this writer in West Los Angeles on May 2, 2018, Buenavista explained, “The EOP CSUN DREAM Center is among the first undocumented resource centers in the 23-campus CSUN system and she is the primary author and co-principal investigator for the Asian American Studies Pathway Project (AASPP), a retention project that centers on Asian American and Pacific Islander needs.”

CRT or critical race theory is a framework Buenavista uses to help students understand the social origins of race and, racism,  and as a guide through her courses on comparative ethnic studies, immigration, multiracial experiences, and research methods in Asian American studies and education. 

Buenavista accomplishes this interlocking web of understanding, “by scaffolding theoretical discussions that challenge dominant color-blind racist ideologies grounded in [white supremacy], with community-based research and service projects that assert social justice agendas, and through an emphasis on mentoring students beyond the classroom. I also utilize students’ social media literacies and provide opportunities in which students can attend campus and community events,” she explained.

 She imprints further her impact, such that Tila wrote that Buenavista “primarily teaches various classes for undergraduate students such as AAS 201, AAS 360, and AAS 311. She [TB1] also teaches in the doctoral program in Educational Leadership at CSUN. I took two classes under her and even met her at a club organizational meeting for Dreams to be Heard, the primary support group for undocumented Students and allies at CSUN.”

 “She has been very helpful and supportive of students from historically educationally-disadvantaged and low-income communities. Without Professor Buenavista’s empowerment and active support, in and outside of the classroom setting, I truly believe that I will not be where I am today as an undocumented, first-generation, of senior standing in a higher education institution. I thank her for many things but I cannot thank her enough for encouraging me to continue my education and for pushing me to new limits as a student. Overall, she is dedicated to being a servant leader, advocate, but [most] of all a mentor to many students, faculty and staff,” Tila continued.

Inaugural Critical Filipino and Filipino Studies Collective National Assembly Photo courtesy of Tracy Lachica Buenavista

Given her “cutting-edge” research studies, Buenavista has keynoted and presented at conferences sponsored by Mellon Foundation, Chapman University Ethnic Studies Summit, the Fresh Ayers public lecture series in Chicago, and the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in New York. She has also received CSUN’s Exceptional Service to Students Award in 2017 and was nominated for the AERA Critical Educators for Social Justice Revolutionary Mentor Award in 2018.

 In 2017, Buenavista was promoted to the rank of full professor. She wrote a post expressing delight of her history and gratitude to her community of mentors on Facebook: “After 10 years of schooling and 10 years as faculty, it’s official! What we do as underrepresented/marginalized folk are difficult to explain/understand and I thank every single one of you (family, homies, mentors and students) who helped this working-class 1.5-generation college student of color carve a safe space in the hostile place that is the academy. And while it is a long and arduous process with many obstacles along the way, I’m most proud that I did not compromise my values and ideals, and only did work that I believed in and felt was relevant to me, my family, and community.”

 Lineage of educators formed her consciousness to serve

Buenavista was born in San Francisco to Robert Abuan Buenavista, her father, and Herminia Lachica Buenavista, her mother. Due to his service in the U.S. Navy, Buenavista’s father lived in Hawai‘i and eventually the San Francisco Bay Area.

 From her father, she learned a sense of duty to family and community. Her mother nurtured Tracy and gave her the first exposure to schooling, albeit informal with Encyclopedia Brittanica, and taught her words and math.

 Herminia, Tracy’s mom, had always wanted to become an educator and even pursued her master’s degree. But, marriage to Robert preempted her own plans that have now been actualized by her daughter, Tracy.

When her family moved permanently to stay in California, she first moved in with her cousins in Union City, where a big Filipino population lived, and when her family took up residence in Hayward, she went to Mt. Eden High School. 

There, she joined the Filipino club and developed a strong appreciation for ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity, as well as an awareness of educational inequities that privileged white and Asian American students and disadvantaged the Black, Latino, and Pacific Islander students at her school.  

She credits Mr. Rodriguez, her biology teacher and mentor, who encouraged them all to go to college. As a man of color who taught biology, he modeled for students, including Buenavista, a vision of what their future could be.

 She pursued an undergraduate bachelor’s degree in Biology to satisfy her parents’ wish for her to “learn something practical.” However, at UC Berkeley, she realized her schooling underprepared her and she became more interested in the ethnic and racial make-up of students in her science courses.

 She entered college in fall of 1996, when debates on affirmative action were fervent. She found an academic home in Pilipino Academic Student Services (PASS) and the nascent consciousness that she is a Filipino, underrepresented and explored with other Asian Americans what that meant. She met other students of color whose parents could not afford the out-of-pocket costs to go to college and though she was working 20-30 hours per week, she struggled to become financially secure as she did not qualify for institutional support that did not consider the complex education generational status and financial obligations of transnational Filipino families in the U.S.

 It was at UC Berkeley where she realized her passion for and talent in ethnic studies. She eventually pursued two master’s degrees, one in Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University (SFSU), and another in education at UCLA.

 At SFSU, she met her mentor, Dr. Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, who has just completed her Ph.D. in education at UCLA and who advised her to pursue a similar path to fulfill her dream to become a professor. Buenavista completed a Ph.D. at UCLA with an emphasis in higher education and organizational change. 

 “So many people are relying on me to finish my dissertation,” she thought. “This kept me going as it was no longer for myself and I did not want to let anyone down. When I was coming up the ranks as a young scholar, the few books I could read on Filipino-Americans was by Fred Cordova and E. San Juan, Jr. Now, there is a bumper crop of books written by Filipino-American scholars: Dawn Buhulano Mabalon, Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, Dylan Rodriguez, Dean Saranillio, Rudy Guevarra, Robyn Rodriguez, Kevin Nadal, Anthony Ocampo, EJR David, Valerie Francisco,  and many more. We are experiencing a Filipino-American Academic Renaissance.”  

 She credits the late Helen Toribio who “saw something in me and went with it. I wanted to serve my community, and it took people to have confidence in me first, until I had the self-confidence to do it.” 

 She is also grateful to the consummate mentor of all many Asian American graduate students at UCLA, the late Don Nakanishi, Ph.D. who “consciously interacted and mentored me. Both Helen Toribio and Don Nakanishi were folks whom you observe and learn from, by their actions. They [Tintiangco-Cubales, Toribio] are strong, accomplished Pinay scholars who were accountable to the community. Mentoring is not always active; I chose them [including Nakanishi] as examples to follow. Don showed me how to navigate the academy and showed me the resources available to me at the university.” 

 This motivated Buenavista to create spaces at CSUN, where she currently works, and through the EOP DREAM Center and Asian American Studies Pathways Project, CSUN students can have a sense of belonging. These “counterspaces” are where students can interrogate their personal experiences so as to understand “what’s it like to be a person of color at CSUN and in higher education.” 

 Buenavista encourages students to go beyond themselves, much like her mentors and predecessors, while providing the students the guidance and infrastructure to do what they are capable of doing, empowering themselves to do the programming of their own courses. 

 It is said “To whom much is given, much is expected,” while Anne Frank (a Holocaust prisoner) wrote in her diary: ”Everyone has inside them a piece of good news. The good news is you don’t know how great you can be. How much you can love. What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!”

Buenavista’s resume is 20 pages long and I dare say she is a power dynamo who gives as much as she has been given by her mentors. She is mostly jet fuel-propelled by the ethos of service and her dedication to CSUN’s goals of diversity, inclusive excellence and quality education.

Footnote: I dedicate this to Professor Dawn Buholano Mabalon, Ph.D., whose sudden death in August 10, 2018, at age 44, ignited a show of unity from: a California state assemblymember, mayor, national organizations, the youth, middle-aged professionals, elders, several media outlets, academic and non-profit colleagues who travelled from Alaska, Seattle, Michigan, New York City, Washington DC, East Bay, Santa Clara, Sacramento, Central Valley, Rio Grande New Mexico, Los Angeles, Stockton, Vallejo, San Diego for her funeral on August 24, 2018. Many professors across the U.S. have dedicated teaching their classes this semester to honor Mabalon, including a recently completed short film. A GoFundMe page was set up for her family to bring her remains back from Hawaii to California, which garnered $70,520 out of the $60,000 goal, in a month. 

* * *

Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 10 years. She also contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Japan, Costa Rica, Mexico and over 22 national parks in the US, in her pursuit of love for nature and the arts.

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