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Graduating with a second family: OMA grad Gaoki Lee

| Denise Olson (story); Jesse Yang (video)

When Gaoki Lee earns her bachelor's degree in information systems from UW-Eau Claire this month, she will take something else with her that she has found just as valuable — a second family of friends and supporters in the Office of Multicultural Affairs.

"Whether I needed advice or a helping hand, the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) was a support system I always knew would be there for me," Lee said in her senior-slide-show photo submission. "The space that they provided allowed me to be safe with other peers who knew what I was going through. Thank you, OMA."

Sentiments like Lee's are quite common among graduates who have taken part in the services and resources offered by OMA, who have become part of the OMA family. We asked Lee to share a few specific memories about exactly how the program accomplishes this goal of making students feel safe, welcome and supported. 

"I started making use of OMA services right away when I arrived at UWEC, after hearing about it during Blugold Beginnings Jump-Start," Lee recalled. "All the OMA staff were very helpful. It didn't matter who I went to. They felt like family because they made sure to greet me by name, went out of their way to speak with me, and most of all, supported me. I tried to attend as many OMA events as I could, and I can attest that each one was not only fun but also educational.

Lee says that OMA's Multicultural Leadership Retreat is a favorite event to attend. Going to Camp Manitou in New Auburn with her multicultural peers allowed Lee to meet new friends while learning more about racial and cultural identity and the impact it has on student life. 

"At the retreat, we did a lot of activities about identity," Lee said. "One that I remember was where we were all blindfolded and told to form a square with the rope in our hands. Associate director of OMA Charles Vue, who was facilitating this activity, then took blindfolds off random students who could then verbally cue the rest of the students who were still blindfolded. By doing this exercise, we learned about privilege and how we can dismantle privilege by helping those who are at a disadvantage."

Another retreat activity that made a strong impression on Lee was a large-group discussion among all the participants, each talking about their own identity struggles in a safe environment.

"It was an eye-opener for me to hear it firsthand from each individual and connect with them on a more personal level," she said. "Hearing their unique experiences as people of color helped me understand on a deeper level how critical it is for us to stand together and fight back against the impact of privilege. It also showed me that it's not about who has experienced more racism, but about how we all experience it differently." 

Vue, who established the Multicultural Leadership Retreat for students of color, is pleased to know that students like Lee are gaining the types of outcomes he had hoped the experiences would bring. 

Students in Zorn Arena for Honoring Education Powwow 2016.

Gaoki Lee with friends Tressa Lange, Casey Moua, Leader Thao, Presley Keeble and Courtney Schaefer, shown here attending the OMA-sponsored Honoring Education Powwow in 2016.

"My personal experiences as a student at UWEC were the source of inspiration for leading the retreat the way we currently do," Vue said. "My most profound memories in college were my interactions with faculty, staff and other students; I joined many of OMA’s student leadership retreats and conferences with other students of color. Those experiences help me grow socially and personally. Since joining the UWEC staff, I have worked to provide current students access to events like the retreat which offers opportunities to create a relevant community of support, strong social bonds and networking with people like themselves."

As such a strong proponent of OMA and the services they offer students of color, Lee has some hopes for the future of the program and ways she believes could even further the great support the office provides. 

"I see ways that the campus can help OMA in their mission to support students of color through more funding, more collaboration with other student support offices and creating ways for OMA to work more directly with professors to ensure faculty know what's happening in the diverse communities." 

Lee has been using the "Safer-at-Home" time to focus on her job search in her hometown of Appleton. She is hoping to find a position in the business analytics field, but also will be well qualified for information technology positions. 

Top photo caption: Gaoki Lee, wearing a striped shirt, attended the Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month festival with a group of DeLong Middle School students she mentored through the Blugold Beginnings program. The girls performed among the many dancers at the event.  

Take a look inside the OMA Fall Leadership Retreat