Clarissa Delgado ’09 is a nonprofit founder and CEO living in the Philippines and Banan Malkawi ’05 is a Washington, D.C.-based specialist in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies. Both are leaders of a new group that brings together William & Mary alumni of Asian heritage.
Since January, the two women have met virtually each month with a leadership circle of about 25 alumni whose class years span more than four decades. They join online from California, Texas, New York, Tennessee, Colorado and Singapore, among other places. For Delgado, this can mean logging on to her computer as early as 4 a.m. from Manila to meet with her counterparts in the Western Hemisphere.
Known as Asian-Pacific Islander-Middle Eastern/Southwest Asian Alumni of William & Mary (APIM), the group aims to strengthen connections among the more than 4,000 W&M graduates who identify themselves with one of those categories and between the alumni and the university. According to W&M’s Office of Institutional Research, Asian Americans make up about 8% of the university’s student population. APIM is one of the W&M Alumni Association’s identity networks, along with the Hulon Willis Association (for alumni of Black and African descent), the Crim Dell Association (for LGBTQ+ alumni) and LatinX Alumni.
The forming of APIM coincides with the Asian Centennial at William & Mary commemorating the 1921 arrival of Chinese student Chen Pu-Kao 1923 (also known as Pu-Kao Chen), the first student from Asia. (Read more about the centennial and what current students are learning about previous generations of Asian and Asian American students in the W&M Alumni Magazine cover feature “Common Threads.”)
“As the numbers of APIM students and alumni are growing significantly at William & Mary — a reflection of the growth of their respective communities in the greater U.S. society — it is of paramount importance for the university to be proactive, not reactive, to these changes,” Malkawi says.
One challenge is identifying who might be part of APIM. For example, following U.S. Census Bureau categories for race and ethnicity, William & Mary’s database in the past has not included a category for Middle Eastern/Southwest Asian students (although a new system is being implemented that will make it easier to document ethnicities for alumni). The Census Bureau defines “white” as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa.” So Malkawi, whose parents are from Jordan, was classified as white.
“If you are a William & Mary administrator who’s trying to find us, I don’t think you can find us by looking at just raw data and statistics,” she says. “William & Mary is a lot more diverse than its numbers reflect.”
Figuring out how to represent alumni from so many different racial, ethnic and national backgrounds is another challenge APIM leaders are navigating.
It would take about 12 hours to fly from Amman, Jordan, where Malkawi used to work as a journalist and university lecturer, to Manila, where Delgado runs Teach for the Philippines, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the quality of education for Filipino children by recruiting, training and coaching public school teachers.
Malkawi was born in the United States, but she has moved back and forth between the U.S. and Jordan. Geographically, her family is Asian, but culturally, she’s Arab and Muslim. Delgado grew up in the Philippines and her religious background is Catholic. Among the other countries represented within the APIM leadership circle are India, South Korea, China and Singapore. Some APIM leaders attended William & Mary as international students, while others grew up in the United States.
“Because of the diverse nature of our group, we spent a good portion of the first half of this year discussing our experiences and seeing how we all fit into this group,” Malkawi says.
“We all find that recognizing the diversity within the diversity is very important for us.”
APIM leadership circle members are now focusing on the group’s mission, goals and strategic plans. Ideas being discussed include interacting with current students through internships, roundtable discussions and mentorships, as well as professional and social activities for alumni.
“Our vision is to make sure that students of APIM backgrounds come into William & Mary knowing that this is a place where they can not only belong, but they can be valued and that their background is valuable to the overall experience of others,” Malkawi says. “I think that's the key to making sure that when you graduate, you remain engaged with W&M.”
She recalls her years at William & Mary as a time when she was developing as a person. It was here that she found her calling to be a researcher of Middle Eastern studies, as well as a publication editor and an educator who teaches classes on language and culture in academic, government and corporate settings.
“That's when you build yourself, and in building yourself, it’s so critical to feel that you belong — that you feel that you’re not only welcomed, but that you’re cherished, you’re championed, you’re valued,” Malkawi says.
As a student, she felt that her perspective was appreciated when W&M Student Health Center staff members asked her for cultural advice about interacting with Muslim students on issues related to religious observances and responding to anxiety about national and international events. She led workshops about Islam at churches and synagogues in the Williamsburg area. Malkawi also spearheaded an effort to bring the Syrian ambassador to campus for a talk after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and organized a dinner for him at the Reves Center for International Studies.
At age 14, Delgado traveled from her home in the Philippines to New Hampshire to attend Phillips Exeter Academy, considered one of the best private high schools in America. When deciding where to go for college, she was attracted to William & Mary’s close-knit environment and its emphasis on teaching.
“What cemented the idea for me was when I shared with my favorite professors in my high school that I was looking at William & Mary, the four or five professors I asked at Exeter said, ‘Oh my gosh, of course we've heard of that school. Our favorite professors from college — Harvard, Yale, Stanford — all taught in William & Mary first.’ They said it’s an excellent school.”
Delgado also was drawn in by William & Mary’s values of belonging, curiosity, excellence, flourishing, integrity, respect and service. These are the very same values she now applies at Teach for the Philippines.
“My grandparents on both sides were active in World War II and I come from a family of doctors. It was understood at home that the value of service was paramount, because we are responsible for contributing positively to society, by contributing to the community around us,” she says. “So when I found a college that put this at the forefront of what it stood for and spoke openly about it, it just made sense to me and felt like a place where I could belong.”
William & Mary’s role as a public institution resonated with Delgado.
“Out of all of the other colleges, I was looking at, there was the component of understanding that education is not a private commodity and that there is a responsibility of those educated for service to others,” she says. “There should be pride in having excellent public education as a right for all children.”
Since graduating, Malkawi has returned to William & Mary to speak to students and faculty about women in Islam and about her experience as a journalist based in Jordan during the Arab Spring, a series of pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa starting in 2010.
Both Malkawi and Delgado also have participated in W&M programs over the past year. Malkawi spoke at the Asian and Pacific Islander-Middle Eastern and Southwest Asian Commencement ceremony in May 2021. Delgado was one of the speakers in a Courageous Conversations talk in March on “Curiosity and Excellence – Alumni Voices; Womxn Who Lead.”
“It’s all coming back to me on a personal level just how much those few years that I spent at William & Mary influenced what I do today in both personal and professional capacities,” Malkawi says. “Being a member and then becoming a leader of the Middle East Students Association and the Muslim Student Association on campus shaped my trajectory.”
Being able to address issues that affect Asian and Asian American alumni is important to APIM leaders. One action taken recently by APIM’s leadership circle was to release a statement of support for Afghans caught in a volatile situation after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and subsequent takeover by the Taliban.
“We are conscious of the shared feelings that arise from instability at home and with one's identity,” the statement reads. “We are hopeful that the people of Afghanistan, Afghans in the diaspora, and the world community will see that the tides will turn to once again see a safe and prosperous homeland in Afghanistan.”
The statement is followed by links to a Q&A with Rani Mullen, an associate professor of government whose research has focused on Afghanistan, and an interview with Sarina Faizy LL.M. ’21, a human rights activist from Afghanistan.
Both Delgado and Malkawi welcomed the opportunity to take on an official role with their alma mater as co-leaders of the APIM leadership circle.
“This is what is exciting for us right now — to know that the W&M Alumni Association is really proactively supporting these identity groups,” Malkawi says.
While the APIM leadership circle is still drafting the group’s mission and vision statements, Delgado says the purpose it serves in the broader William & Mary community is becoming clearer.
“Regardless of whatever final wording we end up with, it’s going to be about making sure that APIM faces and voices remain a core component of William & Mary’s identity,” she says, “and that there is a group that is a home for APIM students and alumni, and that we belong to the fabric that is William & Mary.”