UC San Diego’s fourth annual Triton Leaders Conference, hosted virtually February 5 and 6 to a global audience, held an added importance this year with the theme of “Advancing Equity.” After many months of tension, strife, tragedy and disparity in our nation and around the world, the conference’s alumni speakers and breakout sessions brought an opportunity for dialogue on what UC San Diego and its community of Tritons worldwide are doing to address inequality, and how other Tritons can get involved.
Newly appointed University of California President Michael V. Drake, MD, opened the conference acknowledging this pivotal moment in history: “We continue to grapple with a global pandemic that has taken far too many lives around the world. We’re also engaged in a nationwide conversation about systemic racism and how our institutions and our country can be more just and inclusive.” Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla also noted the force of UC San Diego’s efforts “to dismantle the structural and behavioral norms that perpetuate injustice and systemic inequality,” and stressed the importance of the conference as “a powerful opportunity to advance this important work, challenge the status quo, and seek solutions to complex issues — because that’s what Tritons do.”
The first of many alumni to exemplify this spirit was Cara Dessert ’05, chief executive director of the San Diego LGBT Community Center, and the youngest and first woman of color to lead the center. Dessert traced her path in changemaking back to her first step on campus as an incoming student in the OASIS program, a college-transitional program designed to help underserved students thrive. “We need more programs like OASIS Summer Bridge because for me, what I learned that summer changed my life forever,” said Dessert. She recalled learning the framework of societal oppression, which helped her understand the origins of the imposter syndrome she felt most acutely during her post-graduate years at law school.
Pivotal to overcoming those feelings were the many mentors she had in her career, first working for then-California Senator Kamala Harris, and throughout her ensuing roles in community advocacy. Dessert ended with a message for those interested in mentorship on both sides: “For the more senior folks here, let’s make sure we don’t just choose mentees who look like us. […] And for the young people here, my best advice is to create a network where there is a wealth of skills, experiences, and backgrounds that you can call on to support you throughout your growth and your career.”
This emphasis on mentorship carried throughout the conference, as many alumni panelists shared the virtual podium with university leadership. Alumnus Erikk Aldridge ’91 conversed with his mentor and current UC San Diego Director of Athletics Earl Edwards, about Edwards’ profound realization after the murder of George Floyd. “I made the commitment to speak out on things that I’ve had to endure as a Black person,” Edwards said. From his childhood in segregated Selma, Alabama, to the fear of being pulled over by police, Edwards’ shared perspectives from his world, as well as UC San Diego’s role in the world of athletics: “We are being more strategic and intentional in addressing the changes we need to be more inclusive. We will end up being closer as a department and family, and if you know anything about athletics, one of the things that really separates the good teams from the great teams is the chemistry amongst the team. This is a progression, a marathon. It needs to be an ongoing, sustainable process for all of us.”
Rady School of Management Dean Lisa Ordóñez, PhD, likewise joined a panel of Latinx alumni to discuss the equity gap and overcoming challenges after graduation, imploring students to “take the help you can get. You don’t have to do it all yourself. As an assistant professor, I was terrified that people thought I couldn’t do it on my own and that I had to prove them wrong. But when I allowed people to help, that’s when I started succeeding.”
The theme of reciprocal help among Tritons was front and center at the second conference keynote, featuring distinguished social scientist Alondra Nelson ’94, PhD, the newly-appointed U.S. Deputy Director for Science and Society. In conversation with Alumni Board President Kimberley Phillips Boehm ’82, PhD, the two Tritons shared what helped them succeed in academia. For Nelson, it began with the early influence of young women professors she had at UC San Diego, Stephanie McCurry and Tanya Lehrman. “These were accomplished women with PhDs,” she said, “but I could see myself in them. They opened the possibility for me, just by who they were and the life experiences they brought to the table.”
They would ultimately become two of Nelson’s early mentors, and Phillips Boehm championed such a strategy of having many mentors over the course of one’s education and career, “a board of directors,” she said. Nelson agreed: ”I think it is exactly that. If you’re putting together a board of directors, you want people who bring a lot of different vantage points, perspectives, experiences. In seeking mentors, I think you need a similar strategy.” She told a particular story of a UC San Diego professor who she asked for options if she didn’t get into any grad schools. The professor and future mentor responded, “What are you going to do when you get into all of them?”
“Mentors help us to see a future that we can’t imagine,” Nelson said. “They give you a vision for yourself that is bigger, broader, in that way. As for the many mentors I’ve had throughout my career, what they share in common is a profound kindness and generosity in heart and spirit.”
A total of 15 breakout sessions throughout the weekend as well, covered a variety of topics and are available here on YouTube:
Alumni working in social justice led breakout sessions on advancing equity in education and the intersection of environmental and social justice, while students from the student-run free clinic detailed how they provide care to underserved communities. A pair of sessions also focused on advancing the role of women in STEM subjects and in the realm of scientific exploration.
In the arts, alumni discussed how to address underrepresentation in art forms from stage to screen, and professor emeritus Cecil Lytle discussed the long history of diversity in the musical space, from Beethoven to Beyonce.
Economics professor David Arnold led an alumni panel devoted to fostering equity in business and entrepreneurship, while alumna Olivia Graeve ’95 discussed the cross-border work she does to help underrepresented students thrive in STEM careers. Alumni were also presented with the many ways they could engage with the university and get involved with advancing equity.
Dr. Camellia Koleyni ’95, a regional alumni ambassador for Tennessee, said of the sessions: “What really stood out to me was how diverse and enthusiastic the speakers were, and how it wasn’t just buzzwords but incredibly important messages about equity. I appreciated hearing from the UC President and the Chancellor, all the way to staff, faculty, and fellow alumni, and I look forward to reaching out to the speakers and learning more.”
Alumni club leader Rachel Corell ’06 likewise felt the impact. “The conference made me more mindful about how to interact with our alumni in Orange County and the activities that I plan for our region,” she said. “We recently did the Chancellor’s 21-day Anti-Racism Challenge, for instance, now I plan to continue such themes in our club programming and events.”
And for David Beale ’19, the Triton Leaders Conference was his first alumni event ever attended and offered the chance to learn about inspiring change within his community. “The sessions that focused on grassroots movements were compelling,” said Beale. “The one on the future of community organizing opened my eyes to how people can be more involved in movements to empower marginalized communities, without the traditional way of being in-person or organizing in groups.”
A final performance from doc.Peace Uche ’09, PharmD ’13, capped off the weekend with personal stories of understanding, and a rhythmic and impassioned appeal to see things in perspective and live with compassion. “Advancing equity to me means acknowledging and appreciating the uniqueness within each of us,” she said. “And this is what it leads to–connections, collaborations, authentic relationships and ultimately, a world of unity.”
Yet for all the connections made in just one weekend at the conference, there are many more to be had and much more work to be done. Join the Advancing Equity group to keep the dialogue going, or be a mentor for current students and alumni in need of advice on Tritons Connect.