An Interview with Valedictory Speaker Stephanie Liu

Stephanie Liu is a master’s candidate in the higher education and student affairs program. She currently serves as the assistant director of NYU’s Breakthrough Scholars Leadership Development Program. In this role, she supports a community of undergraduate students who receive scholarship awards through NYU Stern.

Stephanie was born and raised in California (30 minutes east of LA), where she studied Sociology and Education at the University of California Santa Barbara. After receiving her BA degree, she lived on the Big Island of Hawai’i and worked as an educator in the K-12 system while simultaneously earning an MS in Elementary Education from John Hopkins University.

Stephanie Liu

You are interested in issues of educational equity.  What influence did your early experience in the classroom have on your interest?

Her name was Keyala. She was in 7th grade. She loved to dance, listen to music, and laugh. She had a smile that could make your day. Keyala was my student. I was teaching 7th grade Hawaiian History on the Big Island of Hawai’i at Pahoa High and Intermediate. Keyala came into my class with her bright smile, but by the end of class, I saw it turn upside down. At first, I thought it was because I was a bad teacher. Over time, I realized it was because she had difficulty reading the textbook. I had her reading level tested, only to find out she was reading at a third grade reading level. I was shocked and upset. How could our education system fail Keyala in this way. She deserves so much more. This is the moment I became committed to working in the education system in some way shape or form. I became interested in educational equity through my work as a staff member and corps member in Teach for America. I have always believed that higher education is an equalizer. It is one way in which individuals can escape the cycle of poverty. Thus my pursuit and commitment on working on issues of access, retention, and persistence with underrepresented communities within higher education began.

You’ve studied with the higher education program in India and in South Africa.  What did you learn from your experience and why do you think such an experience is critically important if you are working in student affairs?

A large part of why I applied to NYU was due to the global emphasis the program provides. I was interested to see how different countries view the role of education. Through my participation in studying away in both India and South Africa, what sticks out to me is the similarities. What I find similar between the U.S., India, and South Africa, is the histories of inequity and historical wrongdoing that the countries are trying to make up through access to education. The U.S.continues to work towards racial equity and make for it’s roots in slavery, colonization, and exclusion of underrepresented communities. India works to create a more equitable society through providing education for those in the lower caste system. South Africa more recently has desegregated schools post apartheid. The way in which each country attempts to be more inclusive uniquely differs, but the idea of supporting these historically disadvantaged groups in some way, shape, or form holds true. This is important to note as administrators and faculty members work with students. Ensuring that they understand that not all students have had an equal access and opportunity to knowledge. Some may be the first in their families to go to college, and they are learning how to navigate this landscape. Others may be facing stereotype threat or imposter syndrome because of the larger issues within society that emphasizes race.

I currently work as the assistant director for the Breakthrough Scholars Leadership Program through the NYU Leadership Initiative. In this role, I work with a select cohort of students from NYU Stern. These students identify as first generation and/or from underrepresented backgrounds. In my work a lot of my charge comes from wanting to help level the playing field for my students. I do this through helping students develop strength based leadership skills, help build their social cultural capital by helping them build a personal and professional network, and helping them create and cultivate their narrative and personal why. So that they can successfully navigate college and beyond.


As a student affairs professional, you have looked at a students’ experience from the position of an administrator and now a student.  What are the crucial insights you take away from your MA program in higher education and student affairs ?

Through my fieldwork and coursework, I have come to better understand some of the issues students are navigating. College is a time where students are starting to solidify their identity, thoughts, and opinions as independent beings. It’s a wonderful environment to be in and work with students who are passionate and optimistic about their future pursuits, and how they plan on making the world a more equitable place to live in. The college experience for students are like two sides of the coin: you have the academic scholarly side, and then you have the personal outside of the classroom side. Having had the opportunity to work with undergraduate students in both an inside and outside of the classroom capacity has been eye opening to see what sort of problems arise as salient for students. Through working in residential life, I have encountered many of the issues students face outside of the classroom. Many traditional age students starting college are still developing and are learning what it means to have autonomy and agency outside of their family structure for the first time ( students oftentimes experience a newfound independence), many are learning how to navigate and communicate in interpersonal/ intergroup conflict/ relationships, lastly students are learning to manage their time and responsibilities when it comes to school and social. Working with students in residential life is vastly different than academic affairs. I was able to get a large sense of what salient issues come up for students outside of the classroom through residential life, and then having worked in academic affairs I have been able to learn more about school, academic, and career pursuits that motivate students to get their BA degree. Students are navigating learning how to engage with professors and administrators, students are learning the boundaries of their mental health ,and different aspects of their identity, and they are learning how to become more independent self-sufficient beings.

What advice do you have for the Class of 2019?

“Pick a problem in the world that you’re passionate about solving, and figure out how to leverage your strengths to help solve that problem”