For more than a decade, Sefa Aina has dedicated himself to fostering and supporting student success, first as director of the Asian American Resource Center (AARC) and now in his new role as interim director of Pomona College’s Draper Center for Community Partnerships. It’s this commitment to seeing students thrive that has made him both a well-known and welcoming figure on campus but also a beloved mentor to many.
“Sefa has played a major role in increasing access and retention of the margins within our margins, such as Southeast Asian, Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian students,” says Teofanny Saragi ’18, an Asian American Studies major and co-president of Pomona's Quest chapter. “He has gone above and beyond in his work for marginalized students on and off campus. Not only has Sefa been relentlessly committed to the Asian American Resource Center, but he has also supported other mentor programs to ensure their success and prosperity.”
Saragi recently nominated Aina for the INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine’s 2017 Giving Back Award which recognizes college and university administrators for going above and beyond their everyday leadership duties and giving back to their campus and community. Aina will be recognized as a winner in INSIGHT’s April issue.
Saragi is just one of the many students Aina has mentored and supported by building a sense of community that values empathy, compassion and humanity. Aina’s leadership in the Asian Pacific American community, both at Pomona and externally, has been recognized at the highest level. In 2010, he was appointed to President Barack Obama’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, for which he served through 2015 to work on improving the quality of life and opportunities for the Asian and Pacific Islander communities in the U.S.
This work at the national level was a natural extension of his commitment to give back to the APA community, a dedication that was fostered during his time as a student at UCLA and honed at Pomona.
To Aina, working with Pomona students is energizing. “I feel good about my work, about coming to a place where conversation and ideals matter, where being an idealist has a space and people aren’t jaded. I feel blessed to be a part of that and be part of the pipeline that helps develop young people’s consciousness and where their leadership is turned on.”
“The intellectual growth students go through at the College is tremendous but it should be coupled with empathy, compassion and humanity. My goal in higher education has always been creating opportunities for young people to realize that.”
Alumni can testify to that. For Sandra Hamada ’09, a former head mentor for the Asian American Mentor Program and AARC intern, Aina inspired her to contribute to the larger social justice movement and she spent the past seven years working in South Los Angeles working with underserved youth to improve education policy.
“He goes above and beyond to help make sure students on campus are supported, that they're contributing to the campus and that they're inspired to change the world,” she says.
That philosophy extends to the work Aina does beyond campus, which includes working with local Pacific Islander youth. “Poverty exists just a few blocks away from campus. What we can do is build bridges to make this campus more useful to the people outside. That’s what I tell students: You got one of these seats, you got into one of these desks, what are you going to do to pay it forward? Don’t just sit back and lean into this privilege. We need to be accountable to our communities because not everybody is going to get this privilege. That’s always driven my work in my community.”
For Aina, the success he’s seen and been able to share with students would not have been possible without the support of his community. “I come from a culture that values the group over the individual,” he says. “I feel I’ve been blessed that I’ve been part of these places. It’s been a collective thing, not about one person: not just me. I’m just grateful I’ve been around and been part of the conversations.”