Response Magazine

Helping students thrive

In 2008, Seattle Pacific University’s new Office of Multi-Ethnic Programs needed a director.

“The University had an emphasis on increasing the diversity of the student body,” remembered Jeff Jordan, vice president for Student Life. “We wanted to support those students’ academic, social, and cultural adjustment.”

Susan Okamoto Lane, a 25-year veteran of SPU, was the director of the Career Development Center. She previously had led SPU’s internship programs and also had worked with the Ames Scholars program for traditionally underrepresented students of color.

Colleagues encouraged her to apply, but Okamoto Lane wasn’t interested. She knew people from traditionally underrepresented ethnic backgrounds commonly faced slights, prejudices, and insults — microaggressions —  related to their racial identity and family situations. Some were mistaken for international students. “These [microaggressions] came from other students, faculty, and staff,” she said.

“To be in that water every day, all the time, would be straining and challenging,” she said about her decision.

Then God got involved.

“I had a dream,” she remembered. “It was almost a physical tapping on the shoulder, and I felt like God said, ‘Susan, if you don’t throw your hat into the ring for this position, your world will shrink.’”

Okamoto Lane was hired for the position and began to shape Multi-Ethnic Programs into an office that advocated for underrepresented students, connected them with campus resources, and encouraged and trained student leaders. This spring she retired after 11 years in the position and 36 years at SPU. She leaves a legacy on campus and in the lives of students and alumni.

“Susan was one of the main reasons I stayed at SPU,” said Jireh Reduque ’19, who considered transferring after a stressful freshman year. “Susan continued to believe in me and say, ‘I can see you thriving here.’” When Reduque explained to Okamoto Lane that her family expected her to go into nursing, Okamoto Lane suggested ways Reduque could explain her choice of major to them.   

“Susan was one of the main reasons I stayed at SPU.”
— Jireh Reduque ’19

Reduque, a first-generation college student, stayed and graduated with a degree in family and consumer sciences secondary education.

“She helped me see things in a more positive light, and that’s something I’ll remember and carry on,” she said.

Okamoto Lane’s own journey at SPU began in 1983. Refugees from Southeast Asia were flowing through the Northwest for resettlement, and Japanese Presbyterian Church, which Okamoto Lane attended, assisted the new immigrant families.

“I had started volunteering with refugees from Laos,” she recalled. “We had this gigantic youth program with kids from 5 to 25, who were primarily Mien. I wanted to do more, but my full-time job limited that.” She applied for a part-time job at SPU that fit her work experience.

Okamoto Lane eventually moved into a full-time position in what was then called the Career Center. In the years to follow, the SPU student body went from less than 10% students from historically underrepresented ethnic minority groups in the early 1990s to 44% by autumn 2018. That number continues to grow.

As a program director, Okamoto Lane could take on some institutional barriers, including housing-deposit deadlines.

She noticed that first-generation students and students whose parents were immigrants often had the most expensive campus housing in spite of having the highest financial need because those families submitted deposits later than others. She presented the problem to the undergraduate admissions and housing services teams. The policy was changed soon after.

“That always struck me as something that could be easily missed,” said Serena Manzo, the new director of multi-ethnic programs. “It was clearly not intentional, but it was an institutional system that was inequitable. Her speaking out made a difference for students.”

First generation and immigrant students had the highest financial need but also the most expensive campus housing due to when deposits were submitted. Okamoto Lane saw the inequity and helped to change school housing policies.

Others in Seattle took note of her work and, in 2018, Okamoto Lane received the “Vision From the Mountaintop Award” at the Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast. The annual award, which recognizes a community, education, and business leader from the Seattle area “who demonstrates leadership and contributes in the community or business world for the furtherance of justice, reconciliation, and empowerment,” has also been awarded to former Seattle mayor Norm Rice, The Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen, and Seattle University President Stephen Sundborg.

Susan Okamoto Lane, front center, welcomes the 2018 Early Connections students to SPU.
Susan Okamoto Lane, front center, welcomes the 2018 Early Connections students to SPU.

As the years went by, MEP saw streams of students join its events. The program created Early Connections Orientation as an event to help students from underrepresented backgrounds and those who are first in their families to attend a four-year university to thrive. Students attended family dinners, hikes, and study breaks during finals.

“I have made gallons and gallons and gallons of West African peanut stew for study breaks with students,” Okamoto Lane said. Once worried about burnout, Okamoto Lane discovered her capacity expanded.

“I think about the joy of being around students in the rhythm of the year,” she said. “And I try to be mindful of exercise and eating well.”

She also sensed God reminding her: “I’ve got your back. I know what brings you joy.”

In July, Okamoto Lane retired from Seattle Pacific, but she has no intention of saying goodbye to SPU. She will serve as intercultural alumni liaison for Alumni, Parent, and Family Relations, connecting with graduates who once spent hours in MEP’s offices.

“Susan has been my direct link to SPU post-graduation,” Philip Jacobs ’08 wrote in an email. Jacobs works at Greatheart Consulting. “I’ve admired the quiet leadership that she exhibits, never seeking the spotlight or attention for herself. Susan is as authentic as they come.”

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