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Division of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement

Leadership Gala Celebrates Asian, Pacific Islander and Desi American Students

APIDA student leaders were honored at the annual Leadership Gala hosted by the Asian American Cultural Center at Rutgers-New Brunswick
APIDA student leaders were honored at the annual Leadership Gala hosted by the Asian American Cultural Center at Rutgers-New Brunswick.
Jack Ouligan/Division of Student Affairs

Student leaders who help build community and launched new groups to celebrate and embrace their culture were honored last week during the Asian American Cultural Center’s 2024 APIDA Leadership Gala. 

“I looked more into my culture than I ever have,” says Sarah Johnson, a cell biology and neuroscience major in the School of Arts and Sciences and a senior intern at the Asian American Cultural Center (AACC). “Being a commuter student for two years really made me want to find community, and by exploring options available at the AACC, I was able to find the Bengali Student Club. I remember feeling like, ‘oh, wow, I found my people, my niche, at this huge university that I never thought I would find.’”

The Asian American Cultural Center, part of the Division of Student Affairs at Rutgers-New Brunswick, supports the university’s core mission to foster an educational climate based on diversity and inclusiveness. APIDA is a pan-ethnic classification that includes those who are East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander. APIDA students represent 25 percent of the Rutgers-New Brunswick student body.

“Watching our student leaders graduate is a bittersweet moment,” says Shaheena Shahid, senior program coordinator for the AACC. “It is important to celebrate our youth because, contrary to stereotypes, APIDA students go through many obstacles to get to the U.S. and then navigate the complex higher education system. So, to be able to see them graduate, I just feel so happy, especially when the parents can attend and I can see that they feel happy.”

During the gala, undergraduate seniors and graduating master's students were able to walk across the stage after having their name called and receive a stole to signify their leadership role within the AACC. Student groups also put on dance performances, gave speeches, and were eligible to win awards, such as Best Performing Art Group or Program, Best Academic/Educational Program and Student Organization of the Year, accompanied by a cash prize.

“It means a lot since there's been a lot of stress and anxiety that's been in my four years here at Rutgers, and to finally be able to reach the end and see the smiles on my family's faces at me makes it all worth it,” says psychology major in the School of Arts and Sciences and AACC senior program coordinator intern Ryan Polanco.

Some students were able to develop their leadership skills through their internship opportunity.

“I've definitely become more outgoing and not afraid to take a leadership position in a group,” says AACC senior intern and biology major in the School of Arts and Sciences Veeda Khan. “What I really like about the AACC is that they've really given me the opportunity to plan entire events and look at the logistics of planning events for a university and the demographics that we want to target. It’s been a rewarding challenge to bring people who may have not known about the center to the center.”

Some were able to find new ways to encourage inclusivity.

“With my friends Colleen and Anton, both class of 2025, the three of us were able to create a new student organization called the Southeast Asians of Rutgers University, or SEARU for short, and seeing it really become a serious organization is very rewarding,” says AACC senior intern and marketing major at Rutgers Business School Isaiah Almero. “Knowing that we were able to make a community for Southeast Asian students and their specific interests, there's nothing more rewarding than that.”