New Ohlone College President Charles Sasaki rolls up his sleeves

ROLLING IN ­— Ohlone College President Charles Sasaki and Ohlone College’s Board of Trustees Chair Suzanne Lee Chan at this year’s Fremont Fourth of July Parade. photo courtesy of Ohlone College

While most of his family is in Hawai‘i, Charles Sasaki’s arrival in California to take over Ohlone College in Fremont, Calif. is somewhat of a homecoming for the Gosei — or fifth-generation Japanese American — administrator.

“My parents met in college in Los Angeles, so that’s why I was born in California. So I think, in our family, I might be the only one that wasn’t born or raised in Hawai‘i. So Hawai‘i looms large, but I am from Cerritos in Orange County,” Sasaki told the Nichi Bei News.

Sasaki left California to teach ethnic studies in Yakima, Wash. in 1994 and then to Seattle in 1997. He then moved to Hawai‘i in 2001, where he most recently served as vice chancellor for academic affairs at Windward Community College in Kāne‘ohe, Hawai‘i.

Sasaki’s leadership of Ohlone College is a welcome addition for higher education in the San Francisco Bay Area. Amy Sueyoshi, provost and vice president of academic affairs at San Francisco State University, said more Asian Americans need to be represented in executive positions in higher education. Citing figures from a report by The Campaign for College Opportunity, Sueyoshi said 59 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander students who attend college in California start at a community college while, according to a separate dissertation by Johnny Hu at the University of Washington, Tacoma, Asian Americans comprised just 2.5 percent of community college presidents nationally.

“It seems obvious that there should be more Asian Pacific Americans leading these institutions where so many members of our community are investing their time and money to forge a better future for themselves and their community,” she told the Nichi Bei News in an e-mail.

Sasaki, Ohlone College’s first Asian American president, said he felt comfortable leading the school because the demographics are surprisingly similar to the schools he worked with in Hawai‘i. He said that among the 116 California community colleges, Ohlone College has around the second or third highest percentage of Asian American or Pacific Islander students in the state and a growing Latinx community, as well as an Afghan community further north in the East Bay. He also said the Fremont, Newark and Union City area, a region generally overlooked by Bay Area residents, is technically the fourth largest metropolitan region in the Bay Area.

“We’ve got like seven or eight high schools that are in our service area, but the high schools look really different,” he said. “One high school did not look the same as the next one that was three miles down the road, did not look like the band from the other school, did not look like the drill team from the school down the road,” he said on observing the various schools that participated in the Fremont Fourth of July parade. “So all of these schools come together at the college, … and then you take this complicated stew and do something cool with it.”

He said much of the area is middle class or upper middle class, but his focus on creating socially just learning environments means he is looking to ensure all students coming to his school will have the resources they need to succeed.

“We always say that community colleges are open door institutions. It’s much more than that. It is actually about intentional thinking about how you actually, not just open the door, but you bring people to the door,” he said. “And that’s the part that I’m really excited about this job. As the president and superintendent, it becomes my job to weave together the operations of the college and then also to engage the external community, so that the college is top of mind.”

Sasaki, who studied history as an undergrad at the University of California Riverside, said he never set out for a career in higher education. He only chose to attend graduate school at UC Irvine after applying there and receiving a full ride scholarship to study Race and Ethnic Studies. However, he said his mother, a middle school teacher, likely influenced him too.

“You always try to not be your parents, but you really kind of already are,” Sasaki said. “I think teachers, administrators, in middle schools … live their values, right? They have a really clear philosophy and a real clear commitment to a very challenging age of student. They have different issues, different developmental issues, but people in middle schools are the social justice champions of K-12, and I think those are also values that my mother transmitted to me, not through words, but through actions.”

Beyond his mother’s values, Sasaki said he likely brings his cultural heritage to work as well, but said it was not always apparent what in his life was a part of his cultural upbringing as a fifth generation American from Hawai‘i.

“Being Japanese American in Hawai‘i is different from anywhere else,” he said. “You are at the table all the time because there are always people that look like you in every setting. They are your bank tellers. They are your fire captains. They are your elected officials. They are your school teachers. They are your relatives. They are your neighbors. So it’s interesting, one of the big differences for me being Japanese American here and in Hawai‘i is — it’s different here, right? We’re part of a broader conglomerate of AAPI communities, which I’m really loving. It’s different. It’s very different. As a Gosei, I think my experience in Hawai‘i was not unique.”

He recalled his first moment of real culture shock came when he moved to Yakima, Wash. for his first job outside of California and outside of a high concentration of Asian Americans. He said he felt how important his own heritage was when he realized he would need to drive 75 miles to buy short grain rice for his meals.

As Sasaki settles into his new life in California, he has once again had to adapt to a few things, including the strange spate of hot and cold days throughout the month of July that quickly taught him to check the weather forecast every day. To add to his troubles, he had neglected to pack a jacket in his suitcase, so most of his warmer wardrobe was stuck slowly crossing the Pacific Ocean with the rest of his belongings.

“I only have my suit coats. It’s very humbling,” he said.

That said, as a foodie, Sasaki said he was comfortable living in Fremont where he has access to a variety of delicious food.

“I’ve been eating my way through the Bay because it’s astoundingly good. … It’s just one of the ways you get anchored in a place,” he said. “But the one thing that I had not eaten was Japanese food. And it was because I was so worried that if I ate it, and it wasn’t good, that I would be disappointed in this place. And by the time I tried it, of course, it was fantastic like everything else here. It was delicious.”

Although, Sasaki said he has yet to try any poké out of the same fears.

At 53, Sasaki said he expects this will be his final stop in his career, “as long as the poké is good.”


  1. Gail Hashimoto says

    Welcome to Fremont, President Sasaki!

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