A personal path to serving as a mentor and teacher

Getting into college and making it through can be hard — no matter a person’s circumstances. But for alumna Edwina Fui, who was a first-generation, low-income college student, the challenges were undeniably greater as she had to tackle them largely on her own.

“Going to college was really scary,” she recalled. “I didn’t know a lot of things, I was only 18 years old, and it was up to me to learn how to navigate academia as well as adulthood.” 

Doing this independently was a big shift for Fui, who grew up in a diverse South Seattle community where things were done collectively. “Growing up, there were always after-school programs, organizations and mentors who were there to offer help and support in raising me and the younger generations,” she said. “Transitioning from that to being on my own as a college student where the narrative was very much, ‘Hey, you are on your own now,’ was the hardest part.”

Those feelings of uncertainty and fear in the first few months of higher education were so powerful that they ended up shaping her career: Fui now works as director of the Center for Cultural & Inclusive Excellence at Highline College.

“I don’t know if I would have made it and graduated with my bachelor’s degree if it wasn’t for the amazing faculty and staff at the University of Washington Bothell — especially in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences — who helped me along the way,” said Fui (Global Studies ’14).

“I wanted to stay in higher education so I could be there for other students, as they were for me when I needed support and encouragement the most.”

For a greater purpose

Fui said she found her footing at UW Bothell after getting a work study job in the admissions office that gave her a greater purpose — to aid in diversity outreach recruitment events and programs.

As a Samoan Pacific Islander, she recalled, “I really wanted my community to see that they could experience college if that was a choice or route that they wanted to go. The lack of student representation for Pacific Islanders made me realize how important it was for me to stay in school and continue my education.” 

The first activity Fui planned while working in the admissions office was an event called Pacific Islanders Pursuing Education. She recruited teachers and staff from nearby high schools to come and assist in leading identity-based workshops, exploring ways for students to bring their identity to their education.

“The event brought in more than 200 students,” Fui said. “I really appreciate the staff at the admissions office because they always told me that I knew my community best. They really trusted and treated me like I was already a practitioner in the field and let me run with the vision that I wanted for the events.

“The opportunities they gave me and the respect with which they treated me are a big reason why I continued my education, despite the hardships I faced.”

From mentee to mentor

Now, as director of the Center for Cultural & Inclusive Excellence, Fui creates events at Highline College that are similar to the ones she created as a student at UW Bothell — but on a much larger, more sophisticated scale.

One example is Unity Through Diversity Week, which included educational events, programs and activities that explore and celebrate the diversity of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability and religion.

“The week began with a workshop and panel, titled ‘Leadership, Love and Community,’ that asked students to consider what leadership means to them and how they serve their community and take care of themselves at the same time,” Fui said. “The students discussed the many ways they could take on the role of a leader who doesn’t only give direction but who will also walk in love alongside those asking for direction.”

Two other events featured Jesse Johnson, a UW alumnus, former state representative and former councilmember for the city of Federal Way; and Dr. Lucas Harrington, a clinical psychologist in the UW Autism Center.

“Building events with folks like Jesse Johnson and Dr. Harrington brings me joy as I think about our shared connection to the UW,” Fui said. “But more importantly, I am honored that we got to share space with them to unpack community activism and learning.

“This week provided room to express and demonstrate our care for ourselves and others,” she said, adding that she is “always happy to have our Huskies represented!”

Learning at the next level

The past seven years Fui has spent working with students has given her a yearning to return to the classroom herself.

“Being around students and hearing what they were learning about really inspired me and made me crave learning again,” she said. “I realized a few years ago that I wanted to go back to school and discover how I could better support students. I knew that I gravitated toward helping students of color especially, but I wanted to expand my reach to other populations such as the older students and Running Start students, too.”

In June, Fui will receive her master’s degree in Student Development Administration from Seattle University’s College of Education. She plans to use her new degree to not just better support students but also to educate them.

“I’m always talking about building relationships with faculty, but then I realized I could be adjunct faculty in addition to my staff role,” she said. “I want to explore teaching College 101, leadership development or an ethnic gender studies course on Oceania/Pacific Islander identity.”

Coming around full circle

Looking back at where she started from to where she is now, Fui said it feels a lot like coming full circle.

“I am excited to continue supporting students and hopefully take on a role inside the classroom as well,” she said. “It has been extremely heartwarming to be a mentor for students and support them on their educational journey.

“I was lucky enough to have many incredible mentors of my own — and being able to pass that on has made for a truly rewarding career.”

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