A headshot of Mariam Lam

By Munyao Kilolo, Ph.D. student in comparative literature

Mariam Lam, the Vice Chancellor and Chief Diversity Officer at the University of California, Riverside, is an anteater twice over. After receiving her B.A. in English (with a minor in Spanish) in 1994, Lam stayed at UC Irvine to pursue her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, finishing in 2006. Lam’s experience with mentorship, with faculty both within and outside the department, is one of the reasons she was glad to stay in Irvine for grad school.

Strong, supportive mentorship, especially from her advisor, Gabriele Schwab, but also other faculty mentors like Jane Newman and Ketu Katrak, taught Lam many valuable lessons that she continues to find useful in her current work at UC Riverside. Schwab taught her how to navigate academic and institutional politics and how, as a first-generation student, to apply herself despite her fears and frustrations.

And Lam’s positive experiences with mentorship have stayed with her, as she endeavors to support her own academic mentees. At the most recent Association of Asian Studies conference, for example, she was overjoyed to meet up with four of her mentees and learn how they, too, focus on providing quality mentorship and advising for their students. “Students often have difficulty with people who are just competitive and awful. I've always tried to build trust. I want them to come to me for advice – and use me as a sounding board. We need to create a generation of good mentors in academia,” Lam adds.

With and from the community

While at UC Irvine, Lam was surrounded by her small family and a large Vietnamese American and Southeast Asian American community. Initially, this felt like a burden because she was constantly needed for translation work, like helping people with things like healthcare documents. Going to college was a relief but it added more to that burden.

Lam explains, “Throughout my undergraduate studies, I thought I had to choose between helping the community and my academic work. The two felt like they were in competition with one another. But graduate school changed that impression. I realized that the community was actually a great intellectual resource for me. But I don't think academia often treats communities that way.”

Lam relied upon her communities in a variety of ways – including as an invaluable source of research support. Her dissertation work was in literature and film, and many of her objects of research, especially literature written in Vietnamese, were not easy to obtain because of the politicization of post-1975 literature coming out of Vietnam. Although the UC system had some good holdings, availability in the national libraries was limited.

“It was funny because in the early days of Vietnamese cinema and media, including VCDs, bootlegs and illegal copies, my parents would go grocery shopping and find me these little VCDs, and they would buy them. So, they became my research assistants,” Lam laughs, remembering the experience.

She found endless opportunities to learn oral histories from the lived experiences, ethnic enclaves and institutional networks that the community created in Orange County. This was also the beginning of her diversity work in higher education after realizing that she did not have much of a student community in her own discipline.

Taking one for the team

Lam joined the UC Riverside faculty in 2002 without any plans to work in administration. But when her predecessor decided to return to faculty, the Chancellor and Provost searched for a successor who would focus on building the necessary infrastructure that could sensitively address issues of diversity, equity and inclusion for the campus.

“Senior administrators wanted to address issues related to campus climate, recruitment and retention. When I started at UC Riverside, I was doing Senate faculty governance stuff, yes, but didn’t consider applying for the job until my faculty friends saw who else was applying. And the people who were applying for the job were people who just wanted administrative power. They didn't know much about race, gender, or sexuality. And so I applied after my faculty friends told me that I needed to take one for the team,” Lam jokes.

Lam accepted the job ready to create new programming in order to help with climate, recruitment and retention issues. However, she soon found out that a lot of the work involved visiting departments to assist them with working through tension-filled issues, like faculty/graduate student disagreements. Lam reflects “I learned how to deal with faculty who may think they are progressive but still hold on to regressive ways of approaching work. I have also had to learn how to help students adopt strategies for dealing with the power dynamics and relationships, especially as they work with committee members who try to pull dissertations in different directions,” she adds.

Literary studies and DEI

Lam was unsure how her advanced training in comparative literature would translate into the very practical environments of DEI work. Lam’s dear departed friend, Stephen Cullenberg, who was Dean of the liberal arts college, gave her assurance during this time of hesitation and doubt. “I remember telling him that I would tell people what I think to their face. How could I be a good administrator when I’m not so good with that kind of politicking? And he said to me, ‘Mariam, if you go into administrative work thinking that you need to look like the institution and behave like other administrators, you will not be a good administrator. The institution – not you – has to change.’”

Drawing upon this advice, Lam embraced her training in literature to work in administration in her own ways. Though it has been difficult to maintain her publication record in a role that is 100% administrative, Lam finds many moments of great satisfaction in her administrative work. To share just one of her many proud achievements, Lam and her team were among the first in the UC system to create a Faculty Equity Advisors Program that works on healthy departmental culture and climate, in addition to recruitment. Piloted at UC Riverside, the team designed and implemented the program with support from the Academic Senate Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (CODEI). Seeing its success, the UC system-wide committee on diversity and inclusion (UCAAD) advocated that the program be implemented across all ten campuses of the UC system.

“So, for me, it ranges from big achievements to small, everyday diversity and inclusion matters. For example, in residential life, when a student who is transitioning gender suddenly finds their roommates are discriminatory, tensions rise. My team has worked with housing to create additional platforms that help students preemptively match with preferred roommates in all respects. And small achievements like these make me very happy.”

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Comparative Literature