Joliana Yee, a graduate student at the Loyola University, Chicago, will serve as the next director of the Asian American Cultural Center, Yale officials announced in an email to the AACC community on Tuesday afternoon.

Yee, who is pursuing a doctorate in higher education, will begin work in January. The search committee that yielded Yee consisted of students, faculty and staff members. Vice President of Student Life Howard, who organized the search and made the final call, said he is excited about Yee’s appointment, describing her as one of the “rising stars” in higher education.   

“In our process, which will be a year and a half in the making, she was recommended to me by colleagues in the profession,” Howard told the News. “She really cares about liberal arts education and student life.”

Yee’s appointment brings a director to the AACC after more than a year of searches and leadership turnover.

In August 2016, Saveena Dhall announced her departure after 16 years as the director of the AACC. Raymond Firmalino, who began as the AACC’s first assistant director in August, took on the role of interim director of the center. But in April, after just eight months at Yale, Firmalino resigned from both positions amid criticism and calls for removal from AACC staff. Howard then appointed graduate students and longtime AACC affiliates Courtney Sato and LiLi Johnson as co-interim directors.

Concurrently, the ongoing search for a permanent director halted in March after the leading candidate among four finalists declined Yale’s offer. The search re-opened, along with a new search for an assistant director to replace Firmalino. Sheraz Iqbal was appointed assistant director in June, but the search for a director stretched on until Yee accepted the position on Monday.

Born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Yee was a first-generation international undergraduate student at Miami University and graduate student at Indiana University. Yee worked as a residence director at the University of Connecticut for four years before beginning her doctoral program at Loyola, a private Jesuit Catholic university, where her responsibilities include teaching a master’s course called “Multiculturalism for Social Justice in Higher Education”; developing modules for faculty, staff and student training through Loyola’s Student Diversity and Multicultural Affairs Department; and conducting research that, most recently, focuses on the experiences of women of color faculty in the tenure track.

At Yale, Yee will continue her dissertation research, which, while still in its beginning stages, aims to focus on Asian American Cultural Center directors across the country and “highlight the good work that they do.”

“I see it very much as complementary to the work that I will be doing, so timing-wise it’s perfect,” Yee said. “It will give me additional insights into how Asian American Cultural Centers are operating across the country.”

While Yee will begin in January, current co-interim directors Sato and Johnson will conclude their terms on Oct. 7 to return to their graduate student work and research after three and a half years of involvement with the AACC. In the meantime, AACC assistant director Iqbal will serve as the point person for the center. According to Howard, he and Iqbal will work closely to ensure that the AACC receives “sufficient administrative support” in the coming months without an on-campus director.

Additionally, Howard said he is currently looking into whether other Yale staff members can take an active role in the center. Given that fall 2017 is Iqbal’s first semester at Yale, Howard hopes to have at least two professional staff members at the AACC, including someone familiar with Yale’s Asian community.

Johnson described the lengthy search process as a product of a “constellation of involvement” due to the cultural center directors’ dual responsibilities in their respective centers and in the decanal office.

“This process has taken a while because we wanted to get the right person, someone who has a sense of what it’s like to work with students … but also can help us move forward,” Howard said. “We were looking for people who had experience working in student-intensive roles.”

Howard noted that an additional challenge for the search committee was the small pool of candidates in similar roles on the East Coast, as much of the leading work in Asian and Pacific Islander fields takes place in colleges and universities on the West Coast.

Co-head coordinator of the AACC Dean Li ‘19 said he is excited to welcome Yee to campus. Yee will visit Yale on Monday to meet with undergraduate and graduate student AACC staff, in addition to Sato, Johnson and Iqbal. Howard said he is planning to schedule several additional visits over the course of the fall semester in order to ensure a smooth transition.”

While Sato and Johnson said they hoped to have more time to train the new director, they have already facilitated much of the transition by onboarding Iqbal, overseeing a remodeling project within the center, conducting staff leadership retreats and planning key back-to-school events to begin the year.

Looking forward, Sato and Johnson said they hope = the AACC will develop beyond just “food, fun and having a good time” into a more intellectual space that includes graduate and professional students as well as undergraduates.

Yee said she would like to bolster the AACC’s collaboration with other centers and create more cross-cultural programming.

“I hope to, as incoming director, make the center a place that is building bridges to other communities whether they’re Asian or non-Asian … at Yale and even beyond Yale, so that we can move forward toward a more socially just community,” Yee said. “It’s a big opportunity, and there are lots of possibilities at Yale.”

Lauren Chan | lauren.chan@yale.edu