Celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month With Kim Liao
The University of Denver is committed to living our values of diversity and inclusion. We recognize that our community and institutional success is dependent on how well we engage and embrace the rich diversity of our faculty, staff, administrators, students and alumni. With that shared value in mind, throughout this academic year, we plan to publish a series of articles to celebrate cultural and ethnic heritage months. In partnership with Human Resources & Inclusive Community and the Staff of Color Association (SOCA), we will feature a staff or faculty member and a student in recognition of each heritage month, along with an event to honor one another and learn about our unique differences.
Kim Liao’s mother boarded a U.S.-bound plane in Taiwan knowing just one word of English: “Pittsburgh,” the place she was heading to reunite with her husband, who was in graduate school.
Liao thinks of her mother's story when tracing her path to the University of Denver's Health and Counseling Center (HCC), where she serves as the Louis Richard Girouard III Director of Health Promotion.
"My mother and father lived frugally and worked really hard to provide a better life and opportunities for us that they never had," Liao says. "They emphasized the importance of hard work and education and supported [my brother and me] in getting undergraduate and graduate degrees that have been critical to our careers."
As director of health promotion, Liao's job is empowering students to make healthier decisions through prevention, education and health promotion initiatives. But one of her passions is health equity, the idea that good health is a human right that should not be hindered by such social determinants as race, ethnicity, gender, education level and financial means.
“We need to ensure that our systems set people up with the necessary supports and environmental and social conditions to advocate for themselves, make healthier decisions and access resources,” she says. “This requires a special focus on groups that have been historically marginalized and underserved.”
In celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Liao discussed her own culture, as well as her work, in an interview with the DU Newsroom. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What is something most people don't know about DU's Health and Counseling Center?
Although this has started to change, most people, when presented with the concept of “health,” tend to think about clinical care and treatment. People may be surprised to know that the HCC has many teams that provide a comprehensive spectrum of services and programs. This ranges from prevention and education to clinical services, to advocacy services for survivors of gender violence, to support for students in recovery from substance use disorders. Our administrative support team supports all of these functions and assists students with scheduling, insurance, finances and other aspects of accessing care.
How is serving college students different than serving the general public?
Everyone has health and well-being needs, but college students are unique in that they are in a transition period. Many undergraduate students, for example, are away from home for the first time, exploring greater independence and figuring out who they are and what is important to them. College poses a lot of opportunities for personal growth and also comes with unique stressors and challenges.
I would also say that the college setting encourages curiosity and learning, which makes my team’s job easier in terms of educating and helping students develop new skills to navigate their health and well-being. [Plus,] I simply think serving college students is more fun. We have lots of opportunities to work directly with student leaders and exercise creativity in developing health-promotion initiatives.
Tell us about your heritage. How do you celebrate it?
I identify as Chinese-American, born and raised in the United States by parents who emigrated from Taiwan. Growing up, it sometimes felt challenging to connect with my heritage — I was one of few Asian American children in my neighborhood and school system and sometimes felt neither “American enough” or “Chinese enough.” As I’ve gotten older, I’ve made more conscious efforts to explore Chinese and Chinese-American history and culture by attending events, reading books and articles, and keeping current on issues that affect Chinese and other Asian American people. I also enjoy incorporating this into hobbies — for example, listening to C-pop (Chinese pop) as a way to improve my language skills or, my favorite, eating Chinese foods and learning about the history of those foods and ingredients.
How can members of the DU community learn more about your heritage?
Start with being self-aware of your own cultural and social identities and how they have shaped the values and beliefs that you hold. Be open and curious to learning about cultures, traditions, values and beliefs different from your own. Be thoughtful in how you learn — don’t rely on or expect individuals with different identities to educate you or correct assumptions. Instead, seek out a variety of ways to learn — for example conversations, traveling, attending events and consuming media representing different identifies and perspectives.
In an effort to make DU an inclusive and welcoming place, what would you like to see changed or improved?
I have appreciated that diversity, inclusion and equity are regular topics of conversation at DU. We should keep engaging on these issues and address the ample opportunities for improvement. To name a few ideas, I would like to see:
- More investment of financial and other resources to increase recruitment, support affinity groups, cultivate career and professional development, and support other efforts to retain students, staff and faculty of color and other marginalized identities.
- With administrative leadership, continual assessment of structures, policies, environments and resources to examine who holds power and benefits, and who does not, to ensure consistency and continued advancement of diversity, inclusion and equity throughout the institution.
- Increasing commitment to foundational education on these topics for students, staff and faculty, with a particular emphasis on leaders, supervisors and those who hold power granted by their identities or positions.