When Neil Horikoshi was first approached about taking the helm of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund (APIASF), he considered the notion a mismatch and declined to apply. A longtime corporate executive and lawyer, he’d never been a full-time educator nor fundraiser.
Then he changed his mind. And having spent two and a half years as president and executive director of this country’s largest nonprofit organization devoted to giving scholarships to college-goers of Asian descent, Horikoshi has swiftly emerged as a national advocate for postsecondary access and equity for that population.
“He’s an excellent spokesman for us and has learned so much so fast,” says Dr. Shirley Hune, a University of Washington professor of educational leadership and policy studies who also has been active in API circles for 30 years, much of that time in California.
She and others say Horikoshi successfully draws from his 30 years’ experience at IBM. They point to his skills honed from senior management positions such as director of global business development, in which he developed external relationships with government agencies on behalf of IBM, led industry discussions on regulatory and procurement issues and participated in congressional advocacy meetings. As he and other organizers convene the APIASF’s second annual higher education summit today in Washington, D.C., observers praise Horikoshi’s charismatic leadership in building a broad, multicultural coalition in his short time there, going so far as to influence federal policymakers, too.
“Neil has such an infectious enthusiasm that it’s very hard not to want to join him,” says Dr. Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy.
Or, as Hune puts it: “He has shown energy and willingness in reaching across various aisles to a larger constituency including people who wouldn’t ordinarily care about our concerns.”
Indeed, the Washington-based APIASF currently counts among its partners and allies not only IHEP, but entities such as the Hispanic Association of Colleges & Universities, the American Council on Education and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
The logic behind such cooperative relationships, Horikoshi says, is simple. “It’s having a place at the table. When I first came to APIASF in 2008, I kept reading reports about achievement gaps among Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans. It was astounding that Asians and Pacific Islanders weren’t represented in those discussions.” This particularly disturbed Horikoshi having come from a corporation employing many API executives.
So arming himself with statistical data, Horikoshi trooped up and down the Beltway explaining to education agencies, legislators and stakeholders not only the mission of APIASF, but how some Asians and Pacific Islanders have substantially lower rates of degree attainment than their ethnic and racial counterparts. For some audiences, it was their first brush with any narrative of API students aside from the seemingly omnipresent “model minority” myth. Yet for others, Horikoshi’s message echoed what educators around the country had been saying about their local campuses for many years despite rarely gaining attention or traction nationally.
“Neil’s work has helped fill a critical void,” says U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, a California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. Last month, Horikoshi moderated a CAPAC panel discussion of national education experts.
Dr. Chu, a former community college teacher who holds a doctorate in psychology, says Horikoshi has grown the APIASF from a startup “into an organization that has the capacity to support the many (APIs) whose educational needs are overlooked. Neil’s work is having an impact on individual students and national policy. Our community owes him a debt of gratitude for shining a light and helping us move forward toward meaningful solutions.”
Horikoshi counts as a significant victory the fact that Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans made up 19 of the 92 young men interviewed in a recent College Board study examining barriers faced by minorities in obtaining college degrees. He also was an invited panelist at a town hall meeting of educators and community leaders last week at Harvard University entitled “The Educational Experience of Young Men of Color.”
“These were seminal moments,” he says, “because it meant Asians had a voice at the table.”
Since its 2003 inception, APIASF has distributed more than $40 million in awards. It manages a general scholarship fund as well as the Gates Millennium Scholars program for API students, made possible by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Many scholarship recipients qualify for Pell grants, come from single-parent homes or immigrated to this country as teens and have struggled with English as a second or third language. During his tenure, Horikoshi has ushered new corporate donors into the APIASF fold.
The Gates program provides full-tuition awards, while APIASF scholarships vary from $2,500 to $4,000. First-person testimonials on the APIASF website show native Hawaiians, Samoans and other Pacific Islanders are commonly recipients, a demographic that is targeted by the organization because, even as recently as the 2008 American Community Survey, only 12 percent of native Hawaiians and 7 percent of Samoans held college degrees.
Horikoshi, who grew up in Honolulu, attended the University of Hawaii at Manoa in the 1970s, thanks to a four-year scholarship from a foundation assisting in-state residents. He worked part-time jobs as an undergraduate anyway, earning money toward a law degree and MBA from the University of Southern California. While preparing to retire from IBM in 2008 and considering options for his next career, he got a call from a headhunter about the APIASF job. Despite initial doubts, he came to realize “that being an executive for so long meant that I’d already been a salesman of sorts, so perhaps I could tell the stories of API students to whoever would listen.”
Cooper believes that, because it’s Horikoshi’s first foray into higher education, “he sees no boundaries and isn’t afraid to knock on all doors, whereas some veterans might be more cautious, thinking about negative things that happened to us or to others in the past.”
Dr. Robert Teranishi, a New York University associate professor of higher education, enjoys working collaboratively with Horikoshi on research tied to federal higher education policy reform because “Neil is highly committed and wants to connect research to action, just as I do, whereas lots of people spend lots of time theorizing.” Organizers of this week’s APIASF summit, for instance, intend to focus on college completion and student success.
Horikoshi says he never set out to become an envoy for academia. But when he and Teranishi searched among Washington-area activists and scholars for a so-called go-to person representing API interests in postsecondary education in 2009, they found no one in such a role.
Teranishi and Hune point out that Horikoshi’s brief tenure at APIASF has coincided with President Barack Obama’s re-establishment of the White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders, which has renewed the opportunities for national discourse on issues important to Asians.
“I’m glad Neil triangulates with corporations and legislators,” Hune says. “So many of us in the trenches cannot do it ourselves. It isn’t as if we can cancel our classes to do what he does.”