“This was part of my education as an Asian American during the pandemic.”

Alumnus speaks up to support Asian American and Pacific Islanders.

Man with glasses
Jeff Le ’05

“Hey buddy, listen, I’m going to change seats. I’m not racist or anything, but I don’t want to get the virus from you.”  

As the pandemic was starting to arrive in the United States, I can understand why someone would want more space on our flight from Chicago to DC in February 2020 just weeks before the country went under lockdown. 

But, to my surprise, my seatmate moved to sit right next to someone that looked like him. Because people like him aren’t the reason why the world was threatened by the virus. I had been “othered” both subtly and blatantly—all at the same time.

That flight wasn’t the first time I had ever experienced casual discrimination. When I was kid, I was told that I ate dog. In my adult life, I received regular feedback about how great my English was. When I could go into bars, staff would review my California driver’s license and ask me “where was I was really from?” But this airline experience  was the first in the COVID-19 era, which would only get worse when our leaders, including former President Trump, were less concerned about responding to the global pandemic, and more interested in blaming China (and all Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders by extension) for the “kung flu.” But just two weeks later, I was spit on at the airport on my final work trip before normal life came to an abrupt halt. 

This was part of my education of being Asian American in 2020. 

Learning about discrimination and race didn’t start in pandemic-era America. In fact, the first time I really had the opportunity to think about these issues was almost 20 years ago—when I stepped foot onto campus at UCSD as an excited, but naïve freshman at Marshall College.

I was raised in Orange County, Calif. But my parents were Vietnamese refugees. They arrived in America in 1981 bouncing around after six years across multiple refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines  with nothing and cobbled whatever they had to start a gardening company. And even though we lived in affluent suburbia, I couldn’t help but feel that we didn’t fit in. They were “the help” and we didn’t belong. 

The question of “belonging” first came up in the Fall Semester in Dimensions of Culture (DOC) 1: Diversity, Marshall College’s flagship program. It was the first time I was exposed to the concept of social justice. I can’t say the DOC education was a fast-moving epiphany for my worldview. But reading Professor Yến Lê Espiritu’s Asian American Women and Men that quarter was a slow-growing seed that would later blossom in my life as I embarked on a career in international affairs, politics, and technology. 

After the act of hate I experienced at the airport, I knew I had to do something. But how? 

It wasn’t until my parents—now chicken farmers in southern Georgia—had experienced horrible discrimination in the summer that I realized that I needed to use my life and policy experiences do something. I wanted to highlight just how immigrants were making a difference for our country and in this war against the virus. 

In August 2020, I went against everything I was taught at a young age from my family and culture: don’t rock the boat. Don’t stick out. Keep your head down and then you get your place in America. But my parent’s experience made me realize that avoiding conflict was not only ineffective, but it was also complicit to hate. So to counter that systemic wiring, I decided to stand up for my parents and other new Americans. I wrote my first op-ed in my parents’ local paper, The Albany Herald. It started a conversation in their community. It was then that I realized that being Asian American meant that I needed to speak up. I found inspiration and a meaningful way to contribute to the dialogue. 

Since then, I’ve been fortunate to use my past public service experience to speak about why we must do more to provide meaningful support to historically marginalized communities—whether that’s for communities of color, women, seniors, veterans, rural communities, or small businesses. 

But speaking about what we can do to support Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) as the community experiences a spike in hate crimes, has been where I’ve focused my energy this year.

According to  Stop AAPI Hate, the community has experienced over 6,600 self-reported acts of hate from March 2020 to 2021. And in the largest 22 U.S. cities and counties, hate incidents increased almost 200% in the first quarter of 2021 compared to 2020. But these alarming figures are only a fraction of what the true number is since AAPI members are the least likely to report these crimes due to cultural and language barriers, and misplaced shame.

Unfortunately, it’s getting worse, not better. Incidents are now more violent—with a 64% increase in physical assaults in 2021. Women, especially the elderly, are the main targets—experiencing more than double the violence than men.  

As our country enters post-pandemic life, the horrible attacks on the AAPI community aren’t going to stop unless we do something. That’s why I’m speaking out. That’s why I’m trying to raise awareness. That’s why I’m providing recommendations to national and state policymakers and allies on what they can do to deliver real services and funding to the AAPI community in this trying time of pervasive fear. That’s why I’m giving advice and recruiting first-time political candidates. It hasn’t been easy, but I’m trying to do my part.   

When I look back at my time at UCSD, I’m of course grateful for the friendships and memories. But that freshman year opened me up to an honest reflection about my heritage and identity for the first time. And without the Marshall community, I wouldn’t have gotten involved in service and politics. Those influential experiences in the Associated Students Senate and Marshall Student Council shaped the contours of my career. It now shapes my activism in the hopes that we can save lives.  

On the 50 th year anniversary of Marshall College, I’m thankful for my experiences in La Jolla and the opportunities to study abroad, live in Washington, DC, and intern at the State Department. UCSD helped me develop my voice. And now I’m finally using it.

Jeff Le  (Marshall, ’05) is Vice President of Public Policy and External Affairs at Rhino, a fintech startup working to lower barriers to stable housing for American families. He previously served as Deputy Director of External and International Affairs and Deputy Cabinet Secretary to former California Governor Jerry Brown from 2014 to 2019. He got his start in politics on Student Council from 2001 to 2002 and was elected Thurgood Marshall College Sophomore Senator, serving from 2002 to 2003. Follow him @JeffreyDLe.