Leading From Afar
By Matt Morgan
“My work isn’t just about a job title,” Hawai’i resident Faizah Shyanguya ’21 says. “It’s about what I’m doing, who I’m working with and how it serves others, especially in marginalized communities.”
Faizah Shyanguya ’21 has spent the last 18 months 2,368 miles from the Mission campus, but there aren’t many students who have continued to be more involved at Santa Clara.
Between working with Together for Ladies of Color (TLC) and the Multicultural Center (MCC), conducting research with public health Assistant Professor Jamie Chang, and having Zooms with friends, Shyanguya has effectively set up a satellite campus in her bedroom on the Big Island.
While the pandemic has been trying, Shyanguya says her four years at Santa Clara have helped her see the world differently: That finding happiness isn’t about what’s on a resume, but what fills her days with purpose. That surviving a global pandemic requires accepting the emotional ups and downs, and showing yourself compassion.
“I’ve actually been kind of happy with how college turned out for me,” she says. “Going to Santa Clara has been a great experience.”
Shyanguya will graduate this June with a degree in Public Health and minors in Spanish and ethnic studies. She plans to work in community-based public health programming where she can amplify the voices of the marginalized. We sat down with her to reflect on her time at Santa Clara and discuss what comes next.
What led you to get so involved when you came to Santa Clara?
My first year I didn’t really know what was going on or what I wanted to do. I had a class with someone who is now a good friend and she asked me to come to a meeting for Together for Ladies of Color. I said I’d try, thinking I’d be too busy, and by the winter quarter I was on the board and then MCC just became home.
TLC and MCC really helped me navigate Santa Clara, to understand what it meant to be a biracial black woman at a predominantly white institution. I went to an all girls high school in Hawai’i. It's a minority-majority state, as they say, so I was surrounded by Asian communities. Being half-Asian myself, I was used to having that space and environment, not just as a person of color but also as a woman. TLC exposed me to women of color from different backgrounds, but also gave me that similar environment I was used to in high school. They were really my support and my rock.
In high school, I piled my plate high because having a full schedule was actually comforting. There was also this expectation to get involved so you could improve your resume. But at Santa Clara the groups I joined mattered to me and helped me grow personally, academically, and professionally.
You’re planning on a career in community public health after graduation. How did you get introduced to that?
I originally wanted to go to medical school, but as I started taking more upper division classes in public health, I took a class called Race, Class, Gender, and Public Health that shifted my perspective. I learned how public health can relate to social justice and systems of oppression and how that affects people’s health. It helped me make connections with what I was already involved in on campus and a possible career path. Public health is so, so broad. There are jobs that incorporate all of what I’m learning—my minors, Spanish and ethnic studies—and then the programming, organizing, and outreach I was doing in clubs and as a community facilitator in the residence halls. I saw all of those skills tie in and go beyond a medical model.
That was definitely a turning point for me. Now, I see myself working in a community-based environment, putting together programming and advocating for people and amplifying their voices. I had an internship last summer with a health organization where I was writing a health blog for Asian Americans for Community Involvement in San Jose and I enjoyed that. I realized my work isn’t just about a job title, it’s about what I'm doing, who I'm working with and how it serves others, especially in marginalized communities.
Would you say your classes or extra-curricular opportunities at Santa Clara were more impactful during your time here?
It’s a combination. Looking back, the subject material in classes inspired me to reach out to my professors, which got me involved in those valuable research projects. With its size and the faculty here, Santa Clara fosters these kinds of experiences. Professors encourage you to go to office hours and meet because you make these connections and network.
For example, I took a capstone class with Assistant Professor Jamie Chang in fall 2020 where I conducted interviews on the health experiences of immigrants in Santa Clara County amid increasing anti-immigrant sentiment. The research we were doing was part of a community-based participatory research (CBPR) study with The Health Trust and had been going on since 2016 when anti-immigrant hostility was very overt due to Trump’s presidential candidacy and his administration. After the class, a research assistant opportunity with Dr. Chang and Assistant Professor Sonja Mackenzie opened up and I reached out and was able to continue and expand my work. Now I’m transcribing, translating, and coding these Spanish interviews for Dr. Chang and Dr. Mackenzie’s papers on the study; also, this information will be disseminated to our community partner.
Conducting interviews and interacting with the data through transcribing and translating showed me how open people were in sharing their stories and experiences. This openness seemed to be from a place of wanting and/or needing to be heard when they come from marginalized backgrounds. I’ve seen and heard this sentiment that more privileged folks who want to work with underserved/marginalized/
Normally, we’d ask what you are going to miss about Santa Clara after graduation but you’ve already gotten a taste of that during COVID-19. So what do you currently miss?
The MCC really became my second home. It’s a good mix of high energy but also a really calming place in a way. Just being there and talking to folks, I definitely missed that. Also I miss being a CF: I was really close with the staff both years, and I miss being around those people.
What was your favorite book at Santa Clara?
Anything by James Baldwin. I took a class on Baldwin and we went really in depth dissecting and understanding his writing. Because Baldwin understood racism and this country so well, and was able to say things so plainly and beautifully, he is still super relevant today. I remember for my final project, I could’ve written a paper but I was super dedicated and ended up doing a whole video.
What is something you wish you knew as a first year?
That it’s okay to change interests, to say you’re not into something anymore. For me, it was that I didn’t want to go to medical school anymore and that it was okay.
What have you learned from studying remotely for a year and a half?
That it’s not normal. It's not going to be perfect. Everything is changing and continues to change—quarter-to-quarter, week-to-week, day-to-day. So just accepting that it’s okay to feel whatever you want to feel.
The other thing is to not be afraid or too proud to ask for support, academically or otherwise. Like asking for extensions. It doesn't have to be because there's an emergency. Things just happen. Maybe I need to work more slowly or maybe I'm burned out. When you work in a professional setting, you realize deadlines are often flexible. In my internship, I was working on a project for eight weeks, stressing over it, working over the weekend, and I ended up asking my supervisor for more time and it was no big deal.
What are you most proud of from your time at Santa Clara?
Just putting myself out there. Applying to whatever I wanted and getting the positions in leadership. I’m a very introverted person, so I’m proud of how forward I’ve been.