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Diversity Questionnaire Response

Candidate for Overseer

Geraldine Acuña-Sunshine AB ’92 cum laude, MPP ’96

President, Sunshine Care Foundation for Neurological Care and Research

Boston, Massachusetts

1. How important should diversity be at Harvard? What strategies should the University pursue regarding this? (Please discuss specific programs and policies if you can.)  

I believe that diversity at Harvard is critical if Harvard is to maintain its standing in the world as a preeminent institution of academic excellence, innovation, and leadership.  This is because diversity enhances creativity, encourages the search for new information and perspectives, and leads to better decision making and problem-solving. While it is important to honor individuality and intellectual independence, Harvard must also recognize that successful learning communities are best created in environments of mutual respect and collaboration. In this era of the global village, where problems like climate change, pandemics, and refugee crises remind us of how interconnected we all are, serious scholarship and policy-affecting actions require Harvard's students and leaders to better represent the world that they are seeking to understand and to effectively serve. 


For this reason, Harvard should make every effort to proactively welcome, include, recruit and retain into the Harvard family what President Drew Faust describes as "the widest possible range" of backgrounds, experiences, interests, geographic origins, socioeconomic circumstances, ethnicities, races, religions, gender identities, sexual orientations, disability status, and political perspectives.  This can be achieved through various strategies including (but not exclusively): promoting robust financial aid packages that allow any student to attend Harvard regardless of financial capacity, casting a wider net to ensure that more first generation students successfully apply to Harvard, championing affirmative action policies that provide minorities and disenfranchised groups a chance to compete on more equal footing, supporting students affected by DACA or who find themselves in turmoil due to today's policy gyrations, taking seriously all issues involving sexual harassment and abuse, creating an environment that promotes civil discourse with zero tolerance for bias and hate, recruiting and hiring stellar faculty whose faces and backgrounds reflect the more global and diverse student body with whom they interact, and advocating for a broader array of race, ethnic, gender, LGBTQ, inequality, and social justice-related studies that can generate serious scholarship and debate about who we are as a society and what kind of society we want to become.                                                                      


2. How can Harvard encourage more diversity among its alumni leaders and activities? (If not discussed above.)


Harvard can encourage more diversity among its alumni leaders by admitting a more diverse student body, by encouraging alumni from all backgrounds to engage more fully in alumni life, and challenging alumni groups across the world to provide venues for more inclusive and fulfilling congregations.  It can promote, through the various schools and especially through the Harvard Alumni Association, best practices of how to bring alumni back by re-igniting the significant sparks that excited all of us during our time at Harvard, actively seeking ideas from alumni on how to increase participation across interests, graduation years, and schools, and creating environments infused with genuine respect, care, community and connections with one another. 

3. Please state your views on affirmative action and race-conscious admissions. 


I support an affirmative action and race-conscious admissions process for all the reasons I stated in Question 1.  I know that this may seem to be an obvious statement but the most sophisticated, productive, and impactful kind of learning just cannot happen within a homogenous group.  Our students need to be challenged in order to grow, and the most exciting and thought-provoking challenges arise when the student body is exceptionally diverse.


As an immigrant student from the Philippines who spent some high school years in a small town in Texas, I remember being in awe of the expanded world that I had entered into during my first year at Harvard.   Suddenly, I was surrounded by classmates from geographic locations where I had never been, or who spoke languages I had never heard.  In lectures and sections, I was exposed to ideas and concepts that I had never imagined, from people I never thought I would meet.  In the dining halls, my classmates and I grappled with the complexities in each other's lives (from poverty at home to mental illness, sexual identity to sexual harassment) - and through it all, we grew not only as scholars but also as more compassionate human beings.  At the end of the day, this was, as I would learn, what President Drew Faust meant when she talked about "the power of community as an essential educational force" - one made more robust by affirmative action and race-conscious admissions, and driven by the values of diversity, inclusion, and belonging. 


4. What do you think Harvard's role should be in creating a more equitable, inclusive and just society? 


Because Harvard educates many of the world's leaders and wields great influence, Harvard must do its part in creating a more equitable, inclusive, and just society.  To do so, it must lead by example and be mindful of the policies it enacts, the classes it teaches, and the social environments it creates so that its students, faculty, alumni, and stakeholders know that the road to Veritas is paved with fairness, inclusion, and justice.  For this reason, I applaud the recommendations outlined in the Draft Report of the Harvard Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging, and urge incoming President Lawrence Bacow to continue and bring to fruition the work began by President Faust, including seeking best practices from other institutions that can be implemented within the Harvard environment.


As a top research and educational institution, Harvard should be at the forefront in promoting cutting edge inquiry and studies on diversity, inclusion and belonging by establishing seed funds available to faculty, students, and departments for programming, curriculum development, and research on race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability status, inequality, and other related areas of inquiry.


Harvard should play a central role in extending its academic excellence to the rest of the world by encouraging, through its curricula, a greater understanding of social justice's important role in the world and how historical and current inequality have come to be, so that we can hopefully refrain from committing the same mistakes.  Moreover, Harvard should support and expand (through incentives, opportunities, mentorship, and grants) efforts that encourage public service in all its forms, whether during the school year through places like the Phillips Brooks House, or through internships and career choices post-graduation in the government and non-profits space.


5. What steps have you taken to bring diversity and inclusion to your workplace or to an organization that you have been involved with? 


Five years ago, my brother manifested with a debilitating neurodegenerative disease called X-Linked Dystonia Parkinsonism (XDP). It is a rapid onset neurological disorder that renders those affected by it to be physically contorted and immobilized within a year. Upon returning to the rural island in the Philippines where I was born, I realized that I hadn't seen so many patients with XDP before because they were in hiding - ashamed of their deformities and wary of the stigma that disease would bring on their families.


It was at this time that my life completely changed.  Determined to help my brother and the other patients affected by this brutal disease, I left my full-time life as a corporate lawyer and started a non-profit focused on finding effective therapies for XDP and other neurodegenerative diseases. I established rural clinics to provide free medical and neurological assistance to mostly indigent patients who would otherwise not have access to care. And I set up community advocacy initiatives to support families that were falling apart due to psychological and economic stress.  I also partnered with other foundations to provide affected family members with jobs and other economic lifelines such as livelihood and organic farming programs.


Through this experience, I realized that diversity does not require people to be from different countries or even ethnicities. In this case, we are all Filipino whose experiences were separated mostly by educational attainment and socioeconomic opportunity. And yet, each of us had something extremely valuable to share with one another, which was a sense of compassion, kindness and kinship despite societal pressures that have otherwise branded the most disabled among us as social pariahs.  To this end, I have, for this community of outcasts, offered myself as their advocate, their face, and their voice.  And in turn, they have taught me what true courage and resilience look like which, for me, has been a most invaluable gift.


As part of my advocacy work, I have also persuaded top scientists from around the country and the world to study this disease, which I believe can add to our knowledge of the brain and help us understand the neural pathways that affect our motor systems. Today, I am proud to say that the scientists with whom I work to unravel this mystery represent the best minds with the most diverse backgrounds from the world's top institutions. They include: the past and current Chiefs of Neurology at the Massachusetts General Hospital (both of whom are also distinguished women professors at the Harvard Medical School), a Radcliffe alumna who in 2001 received the National Medal of Science for her pioneering studies on the brain, a female scientist from Iran who constantly worries about how the immigration ban might affect her friends and family, an African-American woman who specializes in making brain models, MDs and PhDs from countries like England, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, New Zealand, and the Philippines, four accomplished scientists from the LGBTQ community, and all of whom are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or practice no religion at all.  Together, we, as a medical, scientific, and advocacy body have accomplished so much in the 4 years that we have worked together. We have, for instance, identified the XDP gene and its mutation, published these findings in such high impact journals as Cell and PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), and established a brain and tissue bank to study XDP and hopefully other similar neurodegenerative diseases.  This, from my experience, is the power of diversity.  And I would not be surprised if in the next few years we might even find the cure.

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