Community College President Bridges Domestic and Global Diversity

Charles Sasaki headshot

Charles Sasaki
Community College President
Fulbright International Education Administrators seminars to Germany, Russia, and Taiwan

Charles Sasaki, a three-time Fulbrighter and a leader in the national Minority Serving Institutions (MSI) community, was appointed president and superintendent of Ohlone College in 2023. Sasaki brings over 30 years of higher education experience and leadership to the Ohlone Community College District, which serves the diverse communities of the southeastern San Francisco Bay Area and prepares students for careers in the global workforce.

Embracing his new role, Sasaki notes “the work to bridge approaches to domestic and global diversity is important, urgent, and needed—and our nation's MSI community colleges are well poised to do the work.”

Looking back at the path that took him from a self-described humble background in Hawaii to leading one of the top community colleges in California has given Sasaki the opportunity to reflect on the value of higher education, the role of community colleges, and the particular part the Fulbright Program has played in developing his leadership and inter-cultural communication skills. While deciding what to do after college, a chance meeting with a recruiter resulted in his enrolling in University of California, Irvine for graduate school, where he pursued a master’s degree combining approaches from ethnic studies, multi-cultural studies and Asian-American history. This course of study brought his career and personal background together and gave him a chance “to do academic work and have it be meaningful, and do something with it in the community.”

He began his career as a faculty member teaching American ethnic studies and sociology, and earning a Distinguished Teaching Medal and a tenured professorship. His career took a path toward administrative leadership as he became a founding dean and then chief diversity officer at community colleges in the Seattle area. He continued to cultivate his multi-cultural knowledge and communication skills through a Fulbright-Hays grant to Japan, and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

At several key points in his career, he took part in Fulbright International Education Administrator (IEA) seminars, to Germany in 2008, Russia in 2012, and Taiwan in 2019. These programs provided a close-up view of higher education systems in different countries and cultures and helped him make international connections.

Sasaki says, “Fulbright empowered me as a leader, taught me diplomacy skills, bolstered my self-confidence, and gave me professional and life experiences far beyond what I could have ever imagined was possible.”

As the first Asian American president of Ohlone, he also notes that it was his Fulbright that first equipped him with a language to explain his Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) identity to international colleagues.

When he was awarded his first Fulbright, while working in student affairs at Hawaii Pacific University, he initially questioned how “an Asian American from a non-contiguous island state could represent the U.S. abroad.”

However, he soon came to understand that his inclusion in these Fulbright programs made perfect sense. “Not only did my Fulbrights help me to consider my own AAPI identity more deeply while abroad, but I know that my mere presence helped to offer an expanded view of America – and what an American looks like.” While his identity may have caused “cultural confusion” for others, he believes this underlined the critically important role that scholars of color play in Fulbright’s overall mission of person-to-person diplomacy.

Charles Sasaki with group standing on city street in Taiwan
Sasaki, fourth from right, connected with other U.S. international education administrators on the Fulbright IEA program in Taiwan

The Fulbright IEA seminars equipped Sasaki with the knowledge of other higher education structures, systems, and practices in other countries, providing Sasaki with the models and skills to create a faculty-led education abroad program focused on providing short-term opportunities to students. The program started with funding from an IDEAS grant through the U.S. Department of State and eventually engendered enough community support to operate at almost no cost to student participants. Seeing this program come to fruition has been “institutionally, personally, and professionally transformational.”

Returning from abroad, Sasaki served as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar Alumni Ambassador, sharing his Fulbright story with academics and higher education professionals around the country. He says he has “loved the opportunity to give back by building new audiences for Fulbright” and hopes to encourage scholars with diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds to apply for the program.

In selecting him as president, Ohlone cited his values-driven leadership, commitment to community engagement, and dedication to the student experience. He has pledged to foster strong connections with local employers to ensure the college remains an integral part of the local workforce and economic development.

Sasaki has continued to draw on his Fulbright experiences as he relocated from Hawaii to California to assume his new position at Ohlone, observing that “every day feels like I am on a Fulbright, as I meet new faces, familiarize myself with a new locale, and learn the norms and cultures of this place.” Reflecting on the impact of these experiences, Sasaki says that Fulbright “reminded me that the beautiful potential of education to transform communities and improve lives transcends nations and continents.”

Charles Sasaki standing with Scholar Liaisons at Ohlone College
Sasaki, left, hosted a day of training with Fulbright Program staff for a group of California community college representatives at Ohlone College
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