Inside Voices: “Taking the Next Step,” with Susan Okamoto Lane

With more than 30 years' experience at Seattle Pacific University, Susan is someone who has seen big changes. As the diversity of the student body grew, the need for every student, faculty, and staff member to increase in understanding what it means to be reconciled to God, and to one another, grew as well. As we learn to make room for each other, we make room for God. Susan has been described as the "iron fist in a velvet glove" and as someone who builds things that last. Listen to her powerful story on this special episode of Inside Voices.

Amanda: Let’s start with a little bit about you. Can you tell us about your background and what it was like growing up?

Susan: Yes. I grew up, I’m a city kid, so I grew up in Seattle between St. James Cathedral and Harborview Medical Center, and my weekend adventures were walking to the Seattle Public Library down the hill and back up.

My parents were incarcerated during World War II, and so I think part of my growing up was being a good student, all-American, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts. It’s when our family started going to a Christian church. Yeah. So grew up in the middle of Seattle.

Amanda: So you have a very intrinsic idea of what it feels like to need to fit in, to try and push yourself into a mold.

Susan: Right. There’s a saying, a Japanese saying that is “the nail that sticks up will be pounded down” and that was, I’m sure, overtly said to us as well as, we intrinsically just knew that and so one of the reasons I adopted my maiden name as my legal middle name Okamoto, is that my name — given name — was Susan Jean Okamoto and so no Japanese spoken in the home; first name, middle name, American.

I think that’s part of the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and going to a Christian churches that our parents wanted us to be all-American.

Amanda: I’m sure you’re not the only ethnic background that felt the same way.

Susan: Right.

Amanda: There’s a lot of people listening to us that would say they had the same scenario going on in their home and a lot of people can relate to that.

Susan: Right and that that was really significant when I was working with students who were the first in their family to go to college and from immigrant backgrounds. There were just so many places where there were touch points where they couldn’t even articulate why things were hard or what felt awkward or the things that they weren’t aware of, and I would tell them a story about my growing up or my going through the educational system and it would be a fun connecting point. They’d go, “Ah!” The light would go on.

“I would tell them a story about my growing up or my going through the educational system and it would be a fun connecting point. They’d go, ‘Ah!’ The light would go on.”

Amanda: Can you give us an example for those of us who maybe are sitting at home shaking their head saying, “I know what you mean” and just as many at home saying, “I don’t know from personal experience what that feels like.” Could you give us a couple examples?

Susan: Yes. About being a first-generation college student?

Amanda: Yes, but about those very specific moments where you don’t completely understand how to fit into that situation and probably no one in the situation knows that you don’t know how to fit into the situation.

Susan: Yes. I’ll take it outside of the school setting and to after I graduated from college and then went to do my master’s degree. I went to Lewis and Clark College, which is in Portland, Oregon. So you’re not across the country. Three-hour drive from Seattle and then after graduate school, I got a job in Longview, Washington, closer to Seattle even; two-and-a-half hours from Seattle. I taught there for four years and my grandparents, particularly my grandfather, thought that that was such an unusual, amazing thing. He just, every time I would come home and visit them and then say I’m going back, they would shake their head and they’d say, “Just like a man,” and you know…

Amanda: To be so far from where your family is?

Susan: Right.

Amanda: Wow.

Susan: So when I talked to students that are jet setting around the world or across the country, it’s just no big deal, that what the norm is within your culture and that you’re breaking that, you’re stepping outside of that and what a big deal it is. That’s, that’s one example.

Amanda: I think another example was even choosing a major and oh man, this came up all the time. Good student in high school and then applied to go to college and so then what you think you’re going to be? Pre-med?

Doctor, lawyer, right?

Susan: There were like five categories; doctor, maybe business person, accountant, teacher, lawyer, engineer. So I thought I would be pre-med. I knew the first quarter that that wasn’t happening. I took chemistry and I had taken chemistry in high school so I took kind of, if you took chemistry in high school, this is the class that you should take and I didn’t know what they were talking about and I was so afraid that I was going to fail that class. I was in terror and so relieved that I got a C-. That was probably just millimeters away from a D.

Amanda: “Dear Lord, just let me pass.”

Susan: Yeah. But then I didn’t know what to do after that and I was walking around campus at the University of Washington and I didn’t know where to go. I happened, to see that there was a campus ministries office across the street. I walked over there and I just plopped into somebody’s office and I started to cry and then found my way through finding another major. But I think that’s an example of that what’s clear, what’s clear when you’re in high school and to your family, and then what’s clear when you hit an institution and college-level classes, are completely different things and finding the resources and finding your way is a really big deal.

“I happened to see that there was a campus ministries office across the street. I walked over there and I just plopped into somebody’s office and I started to cry and then found my way through finding another major.”

Amanda: I think that in and of itself can be a cultural divide of, you’re supposed to find something that lights your own fire and gets you up in the morning versus you’re supposed to find the highest paying job you can. Right?

Susan: Right.

Amanda: That’s what you’re trying to get out of college. I was just talking to a student this last week who is constantly having a struggle with his own parents because they feel like you get in, you get out, you get a job, and he wants to get as much education as he can and is looking into grad school, and it’s a struggle. It’s hard enough to do those things in life with support, much less the actual negative coming against that idea.

Well, bless you for working with these students all these years.

Susan: Thank you.

Amanda: But before we get into that, I want to go back to you in high school because I have very fun a story about you in high school and the Black Panthers.

Susan: Yes, yes. Well, the way that Seattle schools drew their boundaries, my elementary was very, very diverse. My junior high was very diverse and the way they drew the boundaries, I went to a high school that was not very ethnically diverse and so I walked in there and having conversations with my classmates, I thought, Oh, I need to bring racial justice. I need to bring diversity into this setting and one of my friends in junior high was, his older brothers were part of the founding members of the Black Panther party in Seattle. So I contacted Michael Dixon and said, “Hey, would your brothers be willing to come to Lincoln High School to an assembly, to a human relations assembly? Because all, I think most schools at that time would have human relations, which was their kind of attempt at diversity.

So I invited the Black Panthers to come and so they came and there’s Elmer and Aaron Dixon and Aaron Dixon is just, he’s just more of a rabble rouser. That’s who he’s been in his life. So they came in and they had the leather jackets and the berets, and they come walking across the stage and Aaron Dixon goes to the microphone and he says, “I usually don’t talk to white people unless I’m paid.” You could hear this [gasp] in the audience.

Amanda: All the oxygen sucked out of the room.

Susan: Right and I don’t remember what else happened during that assembly but after the assembly, some of my friends were saying to me, “I wasn’t prejudiced before the assembly, but I am now.” It didn’t work out the way that I had hoped.

Amanda: The way that you hoped. Oh my goodness. Wow. Well it was a milestone.

Susan: Yes. Right.

Amanda: In a lot of lives.

Susan: Yeah, and in my life, that things can fall apart and you can still live through it.

Amanda: Right, right. Charging in full speed is maybe not always the best way to go about things.

Susan: Yeah, and that’s kind of more, I think something that’s been more part of my life — charging in, not really knowing what to expect, and getting it, something on the ground and thinking, “Oh, I’ll do this differently the next time.”

Amanda: But at least you’re moving forward. I think sometimes the people that need everything planned out before you move, miss out on a lot of life, so thank you.

Susan: Thank you.

Amanda: I think that’s true. Well, let’s talk about your work that you’ve done here at SPU for so many years and what brought you, do you think full circle from plopping down in that university ministries chair, completely lost, to being across the desk from that student.

Susan: So my career path was special education and working with hearing impaired young adults, kids, and then a job placement program with disabled people. I was volunteering with Indochinese refugees and I thought, I want to find a job that’s part time that has benefits so I could volunteer more with refugees. I saw this position at Seattle Pacific University working with business interns and I think, I’m not sure when exactly this came to me, but I think I came to realize that my life mission is helping people take the next step.

Amanda: I love that.

Susan: Yeah and that was evident with disabled people, with new refugees, with young adults, and so seeing that that’s such a rich territory when you’re working with college students, helping people take the next step.

So that was my start at SPU and then it morphed into different things. So that was that internship coordinator for the School of Business and then they consolidated the internship program and I became the director of the internship program. Then they consolidated the Career Development Center and so I became the director of the Career Development Center. Then Admissions, and you know, this part, was working really hard to recruit more diverse students.

In 2007, the University decided to establish a separate department within Student Life called Multi-Ethnic Programs. Since I was working at the University and there weren’t a lot of staff of color, they asked me if I would think about applying for that position. My first reaction was “No way.” I thought I’m happy with what I’m doing and what I said to myself was I don’t want to be ticked off and burned out because the University was, in lots of ways, at beginning stages in knowing how to serve diverse students. I would hear the stories of students and I haven’t had this happen to me very many times in my life, but I felt like God spoke to me pretty directly and said, “If you don’t throw your hat in the ring, your world will shrink.” I thought, “Oh, okay.”

“I felt like God spoke to me pretty directly and said, ‘If you don’t throw your hat in the ring, your world will shrink.’”

Amanda: “Well, I don’t want that.”

Susan: I don’t want that, but thinking about what that experience was like, my world expanded in ways that I could never have imagined.

Amanda: I know you have so many relationships now. So many of us have relationships that we’ve held onto since college but I think it’s usually with a professor or a fellow student and as a staff member, I think you have more solid, lifelong relationships with former students than possibly anyone I know, at least tied, with anyone I know, and I know so much of that is being with someone at those crossroads moments, helping someone take that next step because that’s a relationship that lasts forever.

So I hope you look back and are very, very happy with the choice that you made.

Susan: I am, I’m very happy with that. Yes.

Amanda: When a student comes to your office and plops down and is at the end of a rope, what is that first step that you take them through?

Susan: I think letting them know they’re not alone, that there are other students that have struggled with this, that I have struggled with this and that there’s meaning to it. I think putting into words some of the things I think they might be facing or that are going on, family pressures, things their classmates or people in the residence halls might be saying to them, interactions with professors that are confusing or frustrating, that they know those are, that’s part of the landscape. They’re not the only one and that there are people who graduated and are in successful really happy careers now that were in the same place when they were students.

I think that that long arc of where they are, not to sugarcoat it at all, but to let them know that yeah, this sucks. This feels awful and your parents likely don’t understand this and you’re carrying their hopes and dreams and that’s heavy.

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.

Amanda: I love that. You’re carrying their hopes and dreams, which is a heavy thing to carry. I think one could say that of almost all college students when they’re butting heads with their parents and between their own dreams and the dreams their parents have for them, to remember that: that’s a heavy thing to carry on both sides.

Susan: Right.

Amanda: Well, Susan, I will end with the question I like to end with every time and I’m very interested in your answer on this one. If we could ask, knowing what you know now, if we could ask everyone in Seattle to wake up tomorrow and do one small thing differently that would make this place a better place, what would you have them do?

Susan: I think it would be to make an intentional choice to get to know someone who’s really different than you. Whether it’s like a different ethnicity, different cultural background, different social place, elderly and get to know them. Be friends with them.

That takes some time and it takes some risk but I think we are at a place where we avoid and that can lead to easily demonizing people who are different or stereotyping them in ways that are not true. So to be surprised and to be caught off guard is a good thing.

Amanda: I like that answer. I knew I would, but I really like that answer. All right, Susan, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today and thank you for all the work you’ve done and continue to do.

Susan: You’re very welcome. Thank you.

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