How did you end up at UW?
Good question. Long story, but I’ll give a somewhat condensed answer. I grew up in Guam and in the Philippines, so the first time I was in the US was for freshman orientation in Seattle in 2013; I’d never been to America before that. I chose UW because I really wanted to leave Guam, I was leaping at any chance to go to college outside of Guam, specifically in the US, because I didn’t think I’d get as great an education back home. So I really wanted to come to the US and experience that. When I told my parents, everyone was against the idea and they thought I should stay in Guam and go to the university there. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I was set on leaving and wanted to start a new chapter in my life, and I knew that if I stayed it wouldn’t be what I wanted.
UW has the top Nursing program in the country and my parents were somewhat amenable to that; I knew I didn’t want to do nursing but I knew it could help me go to college here. Also, I had a lot of other friends coming here from Guam so I knew I wouldn’t be completely alone.
What was it like growing up in Guam?
Growing up in Guam was pretty similar to growing up in the Philippines when I was even younger. Because Guam is a U.S. Territory people assume it’s pretty much the same as the US, but it’s really not. When I was there, and when I go back, I’m surrounded by family, it’s a very tight-knit small community. Everyone around me there has been there for generations and somehow all know or are related to each other. It’s very well-connected. Growing up that way was the best thing ever because I need people around me who genuinely love and care about me, I can’t make it alone.
If I had to sum it up in one sentence, I would say growing up in Guam meant having the best community possible around me.
What was culture shock like when you moved here? Are you still homesick?
I don’t think homesickness ever goes away, but it was magnified when I first moved here. It was the first time I’d ever been in an actual city and a lot of cultural norms and ways American students are were dissimilar to how I was raised. I was also a very shy, quiet person when I moved here and in a huge lecture hall I would never raise my hand but all these confident American kids wouldn’t even think twice.
American culture is a lot more in your face. It’s outspoken, it’s colder. The Seattle Freeze is definitely real, and it was hard to make friends when I moved here or in class. I missed being able to speak Tagalog and missed my culture. I’m always homesick, my family and home matters so much to me. Those places and people are who I am as a person, I’m so tied to them. Not being able to see my family – only once a year – is so difficult. They have to miss out on my life. It’s one thing to talk to them every day on Skype or messenger, another to have them be here andbe able to see me.
How and why did you first get involved with ASUW?
I’ve always been someone who’s very interested in politics. It started in high school, probably because of my grandpa – he was very involved in politics and leadership back in my province and I saw how giving of himself in service and it was so inspiring. He’s one of my greatest heroes.
Because I took so many risks in coming here, I was set on success. Failure was not an option. I gave everything up to get here, I took out ten thousands of dollars of loans, I broke off so many relationships, and I spent so many hours scrolling through the UW website about how to get into my major, how to do well, how do get involved.
At my orientation there was an ASUW information session and I got really interested but ended up being not that involved during the actual school year. I was surrounded by people who’d been involved their entire lives and it was intimidating, I was very shy, very quiet (I’ve obviously changed a lot in the last 4 years) so I was overwhelmed by all the rules and guidelines that everyone else seemed to know. I didn’t know if ASUW was the place for me, and at the time it wasn’t. I ended up getting more involved with the Filipino American Student Association and that’s where I ended up giving most of my time to freshman and sophomore year.
Before becoming the President of ASUW, you were the Director of PISC last year – can you tell us a little bit about that organization?
Right, so I was the Director of Pacific Islander Student Commission, one of the diversity commissions in ASUW. Essentially, my role was I served as the representative for the Pacific Islander student community with ASUW and the administration, and support the 8 Pacific Islander organizations around campus, like the PSA and FSA. My job was to support them, whether that was through hosting programming events that were culturally empowering or advocating for them in Senate. I was trying to uplift their voices in the broader campus community. I think one of the bigger things I did last year is working with some other members of our community to bring about 3 protected Pacific Islander Senate seats and it changed history, I think, for Pacific Islander involvement in the Senate. When I was a freshman it didn’t feel like ASUW was a space where I could succeed or like I was included, and now this signals to them that they belong to be there as an underrepresented group.
How did you decide to run for ASUW president?
I think the protected seats thing – which happened in winter quarter, around that January – occurred at just about the same time I said I would run. That fight got me going because it showed me how important it was to have diverse voices in ASUW and showed me how I was personally capable of creating systemic change. It showed me that I was capable
When I went to convocation, I thought speaking to the freshmen was the only job the ASUW President had. I’ve clearly learned since then that’s not exactly true.
Daniele speaking at the 2016 Freshman Convocation via Facebook
To be honest, I never saw the presidency as something I was capable of, it seemed like worlds away. I didn’t feel like I could ever be that person. Even last year fall quarter, I didn’t really, truly consider it, it was kind of a joke with my friends. I contacted Tyler, who was ASUW president at the time, to say that I was interested but didn’t think I could do it, that I didn’t think I had what it took. The role and idea seemed so foreign to me, and I wasn’t open to sharing my story at that point in time. But I reached out anyway and said “I want to but I feel like I can’t.”
We met up and ended up talking about it for hours, and in the end he said, “I’m not going to tell you’re going to win, but I do think you’re just as capable as anyone else and I think you should do it.” I think him putting his faith in my ability to do it sealed the deal for me. He doesn’t realize how big an impact that had on me. That night, I was like I’m going to run.
It was very hard campaigning. I would see my teammates on my ticket struggle and I felt a personal responsibility because I was the one who asked them to join me on this, so everything was partly on me because I brought them into it all. I tried to give them everything I could to help them do well in the stressful environment of elections.
What are some differences between the roles? Was the ASUW presidency what you expected?
It was very hard. I think regardless of what position you have prior to to the presidency, it can’t prepare you. There’s no way to prepare for it, it’s so unique. 90% of the skills are learned on the job. Diversity Commission Directors don’t really become ASUW presidents, historically. That was very daunting, because people would say things like, “she only knows about race and equity, not wider campus issues, she doesn’t know anything.” There’s this stereotype that diversity is kind of segmented from the rest of ASUW, which is not true.
Diversity Commission Director roles are so unique because they represent underrepresented people, and are seen as kind of the ‘activists.’ They’re seen a lot as tokenized people of color, and people couldn’t imagine the possibility of being a director and then becoming president. That’s one of the reasons I ran, because I wanted to prove them wrong. People from underrepresented communities have every right and ability to become president. That’s something that put a lot of pressure on me to succeed, because I felt it would shape if other people from diversity backgrounds or more ‘activist’ backgrounds could or would be elected ASUW president after me.
How do you go about having a work/life balance with your position?
I don’t have that. I would love to say yes, I do, but I don’t. It’s partly on me, but my job is my personal life. I work where I go to school. Every issue I work on is an issue that affects me, because I’m a student here. Finding the balance of not letting work consume me really only started this quarter. Fall and winter were really hard because I felt so consumed, I couldn’t figure out how to separate it even in any tiny ways. For me, that meant finding professional help when I felt my mental health was deteriorating, which it was, and talking to friends who aren’t in ASUW about things that aren’t about ASUW.
It can be as simple as finding little pockets of time during the day to reflect and just shutting my office door for 10 minutes. Even on my way to meetings, as I’m walking there I’m checking in with myself: “How am I doing? How am I feeling?”
Talking to Tyler every day has helped, because he actually understands. He knows what the role expects of you and he definitely helped me get through winter quarter when I’d call him and be crying after a stressful board meeting or day. Not even the people on my board could understand how this role really puts you in the middle between a lot of people. Just having someone that I felt like could understand the situation was all I needed.
It’s important for me to keep spending time with people who knew me before I became president – my roommates, everyone in PSA I’ve known since freshman year, the people who saw me and believed in me since day 1. I know that they’ll always be there for me. Most people only want to talk to me because I’m president, and it’s important to me to hold onto friends who will keep me humble and grounded. ASUW President is a very important role, but it’s also very easy to let it become your world. My biggest fear in this role is that I’d let it consume me and define me in a negative way and end up breaking me down. Interacting with my friends and loved ones outside of that is what’s kept me grounded.
We work in the HUB, we eat in the HUB, sometimes it feels like we never leave the HUB. I didn’t want to leave this year wondering ‘what now’, having given everything to the job. I wanted to remember I was someone outside of it.
What’s been your biggest challenge or struggle in college?
Personally, just surviving. When I came here, I basically left everything that I loved and knew. I had never been to this side of the world and it was challenging to just survive. I’m financially independent, so I had to figure out how to support myself, I didn’t know the curriculum… Everything was new to me. Nothing was familiar. I had to navigate through all that and start my life all over because I’d left everything behind. The past four years have been full of days where so much is new. I’ve also struggled to figure out how to be happy 6,000 miles away from the people I love. I’ve gone through a lot the last 4 years and my family doesn’t see any of that. I can’t go home and hug my mom and sleep in my bed. That’s good and bad because it’s taught me how to be impendent but sad because they miss all the in-betweens when I’m not home for the summer and it’s so hard for me to explain to them what’s going on or what it’s like over phone and Skype and Facebook messenger.
Professionally, I think because I had that huge personal struggle of trying to make it here, it was hard for me to figure out, personal stuff aside, how I was going to be successful professionally. It was hard because I put so much pressure on myself to succeed freshman year. Whatever was going on personally I knew I had to succeed professionally. If I hadn’t been able to succeed in that realm because of personal stuff, I would have felt like a failure, honestly.
For most of college, I had this notion that I had to change myself to be a leader. Before this year, I would go into every role or job trying to figure out who I was supposed to be to do well there. The last 9 months have been such a whirlwind that I feel like after that, I can do anything at this point.
How did you try to change yourself?
My notion of leadership was “it’s all about the people!” and so I lost sight of where I fit into that definition. Leadership is about putting people first but you need a strong sense of self and what you can do. There were little things and big things – whether you’re trying to be as formal as possible in a room full of older white males, or trying to fit myself to fit what I felt the mold was.
English isn’t my first language – Tagalog is. There were times I would change the way that I talked to try to sounds more ‘American’ or the way Americans talked. Also, the Filipino culture and people are very authentic and honest and I changed all of that when I tried to become this type of person I thought was a leader. I didn’t like talking to people about my personal life or what I did in my free time, I would give really generic platitudes when people asked me things or tried to start a conversation. I shut out all those personal sides of me in the workplace, and kind of silenced myself and my story and my culture in professional roles. That was really hard.
What were some issues that were important to you during your campaign last spring and that you’ve continued to work on during your time as president?
When I sat down and really thought about my personal platform and what I might want my team platform to look like, there were a few basic issues and values that I think will always be important to the student body. Affordability, health and wellness, safety, academics…even though the specific problems in those areas may change, those priorities will always be there. Racial equity as well. At the end of the day, we all recognize that despite the differences between the ASUW campaign tickets, at the core they’re still trying to address the same issues. I really don’t see that changing.
If there’s one thing I’m really proud of this year, it’s my work on the Bias Incident Advisory Committee, which is a new project this year with UW Student Life. We helped create the Bias Reporting Form and it’s been a response to what students are facing on campus. This form is open to any member of the UW community (student, staff, faculty, administration) and they can report an incident related to bias anonymously or not anonymously.
It’s revolutionary because it empowers a student if they see a hate flier, if a professor says something offensive, if they see offensive graffiti, so they can hold UW accountable. Before, they didn’t know what they were supposed to do – post on social media or talk to their friends? They didn’t really have options. Now they have somewhere to go with that. It changes the game because incidents can be reported and we can reach out to UWPD and other groups to address them.
photo courtesty of Daniele Mempin Meñez
What does leadership mean to you? How being ASUW President affected how you define it?
At first, before becoming president, I had the very cliché view of leadership: that it’s all about serving people and giving yourself to others. That’s true, that’s what leadership is about, serving others, but at the same time it’s not just you serving and loving other people, but also serving and loving yourself. Taking on the presidency has taught me to not just to love and serve others, but helped me become much more self-aware.
People think that there are certain characteristics to be a leader, but I’ve learned over time that who I am is what will help me succeed in making a difference or changing someone’s life. When I first started my term, I spent a lot of time in meetings with some of the most influential people in UW at Seattle, and there would be a room with all these powerful people and then me, this 21-year-old girl, and I felt like I had to put on this very inauthentic façade of how I presented myself and talked. Granted, I do have to be formal, but I think I figured out how to navigate that but still stay true to myself. I’ve learned how to be myself in every context and situation, so whether I’m talking to a student in my office or Ana Marie in her office or another meeting, I talk like myself and stand for the same values.
It’s so powerful to be yourself in every space, and I think that’s how I became a leader. It shows a lot of students, I hope, that they don’t have to cross things off a checklist to become president or another leader on campus. They already have those capabilities. You don’t need to sacrifice yourself to succeed in this world – the opposite.
Part of me not showing my personal side at work or silencing that side also stems from when I first moved here and I tried assimilate those parts of me that made me different. I really tried my best when I moved here to become as American as possible, and that just wasn’t me.
Do you feel like you’ve changed as a result of the Presidency?
At my core, I’ve stayed the same person. I’ve definitely grown, but it’s been more growth than change. Something I’m so appreciative of about being ASUW president is that – it sounds cliché – it’s helped me find myself. As president, you get put in situations every day that expose your vulnerabilities and weaknesses and that’s so hard about the job but it’s also really helpful for me. In those times of stress and isolation and loneliness, that’s when I really found myself. That’s when the real you comes out, not in the good, easy times. This role has shown me who I am as a person, what I value, and what I care about. I’m really thankful for that. When you’re put in such scrutiny in such a challenging job, you learn so much about yourself and I’ve learned to really love myself.
You recently wrote a really powerful post called No, I’m not “Good” about what it’s been like for you behind the scenes as ASUW President. How did it feel to hit publish?
I’ve been wanting to write a post like that for weeks. It was hard to reflect on some things as I was writing; I’d start crying because it would bring back so many memories. It took me so long not just to write, but to publish as well. It’s very raw, it’s about who I am as a person and ASUW president. It was hard to hit publish because it’s me in a few thousand words and it’s as real as I can get with people about who I am and what happened and what ASUW President has been like for me. It’s me on a screen.
I’m the type of person that’s really independent and doesn’t like showing vulnerabilities or failing or not doing well, and so I’d tell everyone who was worried about me that I was fine even when I was dying inside. I had that wrong notion of leadership that you had to be perfect, couldn’t break down because it wasn’t inspiring. I felt like people would only be inspired by the good things.
I’m really grateful for how receptive people have been. Dozens of people – strangers, friends, other student body presidents –have reached out and said that it helped them in some way or impacted them. The number of young women of color who have reached out to me and said that the post resonated with them about feeling like you have to change yourself or be someone you’re not just makes me so grateful and glad that I’ve been able to make a difference in that way.
What’s your proudest moment?
I haven’t had my proudest moment yet, because I know what it’s going to be: June 10th when I give my commencement speech. Not because of the speech, but because it’s the only and final moment where my family will see me at UW, not just as a student, but also as ASUW president. They’ve missed my whole journey of being a student and president, but they get to see me as a student getting my diploma, and me as ASUW president fulfilling my last duty. They may have missed everything up to that, but they’ll be there at the end and that’s what matters to me. They can see what it’s all led up to. That’ll be my proudest moment because they’ll be there and they can see what I’ve been able to do because of them. I’ll basically be shedding waterfalls at commencement.
At Commencement you’ll graduate as a Public Health major; how did you pick that field and what comes next?
I took Chem 142 freshman year winter quarter and it was terrible. I had to drop it because I was failing the class. I was like, “I can’t do this.” For one thing, my curriculum back in Guam was not STEM-heavy at all; the farthest we went in Science was the periodic table. So I was pretty much set up to fail in every STEM class because I lacked that foundation everyone else had, so I knew I wouldn’t be doing nursing. I started looking for something that was a lot more social sciences-based. Public Health is very interdisciplinary and there’s no set path, which is what I want. I don’t like limiting myself and I really care about making social impact across a variety of sectors, not only business or policy or law. I want it to transcend any one category.
I’m moving to New York in September to work at a really amazing law firm. It’s either one of few or the only one of its kind. It’s a rotational business program within a law firm so I’ll learn business development, entrepreneurship, things like that, and I’ll be living with my older sister who’s moving there as well.
Okay, a couple lighter questions:
Country or City?
My favorite place in the world is the Philippines, and at some point in my life would like to live or settle down in Manila. No place in the world will ever compare because I have such close and personal ties there. There’s no other feeling like when I first land in the Philippines and I step off the plane, no matter how many times I’ve been home since moving away.
Favorite late night snack?
Hot Cheetos. I love Hot Cheetos. They’re my fave whether it’s late night or not. When people think Daniele, they think Hot Cheetos. Hot Cheetos are a staple in Guam – when I got home for the summer after freshman year, there was a basket of them on my bed for me.
Favorite event you’ve ever attended in Seattle?
Every year, the Filipino American Student Association has an annual cultural night that we spend all year preparing for. When I was a sophomore, I was an officer for FASA, and our Filipino night hosted a play about all those struggles I experienced: suppressing your culture, trying to fit in, figuring out who you are. It was written, directed, and acted by FASA students and it embodied so many of the basic issues that Filipinos and particularly Filipino young women go through every single day. It was so powerful and knowing I had a role in that production…that will stay with me.
Coffee or tea?
Tea, definitely. I didn’t drink coffee until last quarter when I had a bunch of midterms since it usually makes me jittery.
Personal pet peeve?
Oh, there are so many. I don’t like it when people are not authentic and very power-hungry and only doing things for the resume. Obviously being ASUW President exposes you to a lot of people who are like that. I’ve encountered some people who don’t really care about serving the students, they want to be famous or powerful or popular. That’s my biggest pet peeve, someone who’s only doing things for the glory, especially in leadership. The glory people see with ASUW President, for example, is 5 minutes at Convocation and 5 minutes at Commencement. The rest of the time you’re working hard, you’re alone, and people don’t see that part.
Are there any mantras or quotes you really like or rely on?
When I was in high school, I was the underachiever. If you’d told me then that if I’d be the student body president at an American University, I’d laugh. I was a smart kid, I was in Honors and AP, but I was the least hardworking person in my class. Like an under-overachiever if that makes sense.
When I graduated high school, I was searching for a way to feel inspired again and good about myself. I watched Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford and it’s cliché but it really changed me. I got screenshots of the quotes, I saved the speech. For a good two years, that was my phone wallpaper.
What are some favorite spots in Seattle? It can be anything – restaurants, concert venues, parks, touristy places…
I love to eat. I really, really love to eat. If you ask my friends what I care about besides serving other students and my family, it’s food. My favorite sushi places are Musashi’s in the U District and Momiji on Cap Hill. All my favorite spots are restaurants.
I love steak, too. There’s this place called Ipanema, and if I’ve had a stressful day I’ll take my friends there and we’ll just eat steak for two hours.
And finally, what do you wish you could go back and tell your freshman self?
I would tell myself “you are enough.” For the last year, that has been my phone wallpaper. For a long time, I didn’t love myself or even know myself. I wasn’t true to who I was because I didn’t know who I was, I was always chasing the next thing or role. I had to learn to take a breath and know I didn’t have to do anything spectacular or change myself to succeed.
It would have been a lot easier to survive when I wasn’t always trying to change myself. There was no way for me to know that, but I see it now.
Don’t forget to vote in this year’s ASUW election from May 8th – 11th at: http://vote.asuw.org/