When Dr. Judy Sakaki becomes president of Sonoma State University (SSU) in July, it will be a milestone in the school’s history. Not only will SSU leadership change hands for the first time since 1992, but the university will welcome its second female president and first Asian American president.
Asian American presidents comprise less than 1 percent of the total number of college and university presidents in the United States.
“Oftentimes, Asian Americans in higher education are the workhorses and not the show horses,” says Dr. Frank Chong, superintendent/president of Santa Rosa Junior College. “They’re people behind the scenes doing a lot of the work without getting credit for it, and when it comes time to consider bringing these people forward to an executive-level position, they’re often overlooked.”
Chong and Sakaki have been colleagues for 30 years and early on in their careers collaborated to found Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education (APAHE).
“She’s a wonderful listener and collaborator, she’s a very insightful person and she’s a very inclusive person,” Chong says of Sakaki.
“Coming from a student affairs background and a counseling background I think will serve her well as she ascends to a presidency because a lot of what we do is problem-solve and try to get people to work together.”
At the start of her career in academe, one of Sakaki’s first jobs was as a community outreach coordinator at California State University, East Bay, then known as Hayward State, reaching out to Black and Latino students in Oakland. She now serves as the vice president of student affairs in the office of University of California (UC) System President Janet Napolitano.
At UC, Sakaki manages services and policies for 238,000 students at the system’s 10 campuses. She has also led fundraising efforts and facilitated alumni and community relations.
Sakaki’s background in student affairs makes her a great fit for the presidency, says Dr. Elaine Newman, former SSU Academic Senate chair and president of the SSU chapter of the California Faculty Association, adding, “She’s going to bring a renewed focus on students and student life and I think that will be a really terrific change for Sonoma State.”
As she looks forward to the upcoming move, Sakaki reflects back on the complicated history that brought her to this point. Her identity as one of the few Asian American university presidents, and one of the even fewer Japanese American presidents, “comes with a certain amount of responsibility,” she says.
“I attribute much of my career to people reaching out to me, to helping me and guiding me and encouraging me, and having more confidence in me than I maybe even had in myself,” she tells Diverse. “I take the time in my career now to mentor students, young professionals and faculty. It’s that mentality of lifting as you climb.”
That concept of generational progress applies not only to her professional life, but also to her family’s history, Sakaki says. The older generations in her family overcame substantial hurdles to make a life for themselves in this country.
Sakaki was the first in her family to attend college. She grew up in Oakland, Calif., and obtained a bachelor’s in human development and a master’s in educational psychology from CSU East Bay. She earned a doctorate in education from UC Berkeley.
As Sakaki tells it, her family’s history in the United States hinges on a twist of fate. Her great-aunt, who planned to immigrate to the United States from Japan as a picture bride at the turn of the 20th century to marry a man she had never met before, changed her mind at the last minute. “When the boat was about to take off, my grandmother’s sister got a little scared and said, ‘Go for me, instead,’” Sakaki says.
Standing at the edge of a vast ocean that separated her from an unfamiliar continent, Sakaki’s grandmother could hardly have foreseen the tumultuous future that awaited her in the United States.
The family would later endure the internment camps of World War II, where more than 100,000 Japanese Americans living on the Pacific Coast were incarcerated between 1942 and 1946.
Both of Sakaki’s parents and her grandparents were interned in the camps, and the familial memory of that period has not left Sakaki. She tells Diverse that one of her proudest accomplishments at UC was campaigning for a unanimous vote from the UC Board of Regents to overturn a 37-year moratorium on awarding honorary degrees in 2009. UC then awarded honorary degrees to Japanese Americans who were students at the time of the internment camps and whose educations were interrupted as a result.
As Sakaki says, “With anything I have accomplished, I feel I stand here because my ancestors and others who have gone before me have allowed me, as tough as it has been, to be able to achieve this.”