Environments Do Matter: A Q&A With New Associate Dean Samuel Song
Navigating and examining diversity and environments have been central parts of Professor Samuel Song’s life ever since immigrating to the U.S. from Korea when he was a year old.
He first grew up in a predominantly Latinx community in Anaheim.
He cut his teeth in academia as the only Asian member of renowned psychologist Margaret Beale Spencer’s predominantly Black research team at Emory University, now at University of Pennsylvania.
And, as an expert in school psychology and a fellow of the American Psychological Association (APA), he has devoted his career since to studying school climate and advancing social justice and antiracism initiatives.
Song, who came to San Diego State University from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas over the summer to direct SDSU’s school psychology program, will soon take on an additional role: associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion. He will begin the position in January, following in the footsteps of Frank Harris III, who served in an interim capacity for more than a year.
The COE News Team asked Song about his vision for DEI, the meaning of belonging and what raising a troubled family member taught him about the importance of environment.
What excites you most about leading the College of Education’s DEI efforts?
"For one thing, I do see it as a natural extension of what I'm already doing as a leader in my field. My professional career has really been about advocacy and working on issues like this in schools. This is an issue of school climate. For another, this is my fourth university. I've had a lot of great experience in higher ed but I have experienced and witnessed some challenges in the area of DEI that have not been great for people. I've seen a lot of harmful leadership styles and I've seen a lot of injustices to junior faculty, women faculty, BIPOC faculty. I've also seen a lot of challenges with treatment of lecturers or people who are not tenure-track. I'm motivated to try to address some of that — to right the wrongs that I've seen either to myself or to other people."
What's the key to building a positive climate in an academic institution?
"A lot of things are important for that, like belonging and mattering — ensuring people feel like they're valued. That includes staff and students, of course. My vision is for everyone who works here and studies here to be in an environment where they feel liberated and that they're flourishing. As I start in this role, I want to listen to people's concerns and get to know people. But I've seen situations where leadership doesn't really want to do anything and so all they do is listen. All listening and no action. I'm really about action. Ultimately, meaningful change is going to happen through policy change."
What does it mean for an organization to embody these values?
"I think we need to develop a culture where relationships are central. That doesn't mean you're best friends with everybody, that means we're a community in relationship with each other. Everyone is deserving of respect and everyone's work is important. Relationship-first means that you see everyone as a human and not just someone who's going to do something for you. There's a tendency that people have towards objectification of others. It's like how we treat customer service personnel when we're annoyed. We don't see them as human. We can treat our students that way and students can treat us that way. Like, 'Hey, I need you to give me an A.' Our relationships can’t be built on just transactions.
“The other thing is empowerment. We have to be hearing people who usually don't have a seat at the table or maybe don't feel like their voices are being heard. And we need to empower that group to speak for themself, whether that's students, staff, the non-permanent faculty. And those who are diverse too; diversity is not just about race or gender identity. It includes those, of course, but it's also ability, age, class, sexuality and language for example and how those identities interact so if there's a hierarchy, let's flatten the hierarchy. One thing I'd like to do is create community action research groups to let individuals be in charge of the change they want to see.”
So much of your perspective on DEI stems from your background in school psychology. What got you into that field?
“I grew up as a Korean immigrant having to fight for my identity and against my perceived identity. . . The story I tell everyone about why I chose school psychology is about my cousin Paul, who immigrated from Korea later. I'm the youngest of three, so he was like my little brother. His mom passed away from cancer and his dad turned to alcohol more and really beat him a lot. It was pretty bad. So my cousin was pushed out of school and he was getting into gang banging. I went off to college at Emory University, and while I was back home he brought over a truck for my birthday. It was a really cool 4 X 4 — and it was stolen. I was like, ‘Go take it back.’ After that experience I asked my roommates in college, 'Hey, do you think it's OK if we take my cousin in? He needs a change of environment.' They were cool with it so I took him to Atlanta my sophomore year. He lived with me for six years.
“I always felt like a failure because he never went back to school. But over my career I learned that success is relative. All of my cousin's friends that he was gangbanging with, they're all in jail or dead. My cousin is married, he has a house, he makes an honest living. I mean, I think he has more cash right now than I do (laughs). So it was a complete environment change. We talk about that in our program — it’s called ecological theory. Environments do matter. So I realized that if you're gonna prevent anything, you've got to do early intervention. And that means you’ve got to be in schools.”
Interview lightly edited for length and clarity.