Hikaru Kozuma says that many people who end up working in student affairs in higher education do so by accident.
But Kozuma’s path down that road was purely intentional.
As an undergraduate at Middlebury College in rural Vermont, he volunteered as a residential assistant. After graduation, he had plans to go to medical school—but first decided to take a gap year to work on something that would be helpful for his development, and also give back to his college. At age 22, Kozuma took a job as Middlebury’s residential director, and liked it so much that he ended up scrapping his plans for medical school.
“That’s when it solidified that higher education was the area in which I wanted to remain,” Kozuma says.
After an additional two years at Middlebury, Kozuma attended grad school at Harvard, and moved back to his hometown of New York City to work at Columbia’s student affairs office. When the opportunity to work at Penn came across his desk, he applied—though he initially didn’t imagine he’d live and work in Philadelphia.
But Penn appealed to him, and in 2010, he took over as the Executive Director of Penn’s Office of Student Affairs. Kozuma was named interim associate vice provost in July of 2012 and was appointed to his current position in March of 2013.
“When I got here to Penn, what struck me was I wanted to be at a place where I still think there’s a lot of work that can be done, but I also didn’t want a place that was dysfunctional or falling apart,” he says. “I’m just appreciative of the colleagues I have. I can’t feel like I’m having a good day or walk away feeling like I accomplished something without the colleagues I work with. They’re some of the most talented people who really care about the students. The students themselves bring so much for the table—I could sit with students and hear who they are and what they want to do in life forever.”
In fact, students are the cornerstone of Kozuma’s role in the Division of the Vice Provost for University Life (VPUL). In his job, he oversees eight departments and centers, including Alcohol & Other Drug Program Initiatives, Civic House, the LGBT Center, Student Intervention Services, the Office of Student Affairs, the Office of Student Affairs/Fraternity Sorority Life, Platt Student Performing Arts House, and Penn Women’s Center.
The Current sat down with Kozuma to discuss his sweeping job, some things he’s learned about students, his decision to pursue an Ed.D. at Penn, and his plans to attend a comic book convention with Penn’s chaplain.
Q: Talk about some of the things that you’ve done in the time you’ve been here.
A: I think there’s more collaboration that’s been occurring. Even when I got here, there was a lot of effort toward that goal of making sure that schools and divisions and people work closely together to be on the same page. When I was going into the Office of Student Affairs, I really wanted to make sure that we were in a position to take on things that may not be the glorious work, but things that could free up other departments so they can do higher level advising.
Q: What are some of the programs, offices, and centers that you oversee?
A: I work collaboratively with all the other associate vice presidents in VPUL. I work with pretty much all the other aspects of the institution, from academic advising, to athletics, to public safety, business services. Things that people don’t know where it falls—it will find its way here. You have offices that really work on students’ identity and developing a community, like the Penn Women’s Center or the LGBT Center. Then I work with the Office of Student Affairs [which is] a more generalist student organization. That is a catch-all for things that don’t fit neatly in a space and some of the student governments, both undergraduate and graduate students. I think a lot of how students live their lives is reflected in how we try to approach our work, even though there are distinctive offices within my unit.
Q: One of the offices that reports to you is the Alcohol & Other Drug Program Initiatives. What is Penn’s approach to this problem?
A: I’ve experienced Penn students, more often than not, wanting to partner and find a solution, as opposed to just throwing it on the steps of the administration and walking away from it. They really actually want to be part of it—as much as they can—and we try to balance that so they’re not doing all the heavy lifting and shirking their academic responsibilities. We recognize any sort of best solution that’s going to come about is going to involve them in some manner. I think we’re pretty realistic, whether it’s problems with alcohol or drugs or other mental health issues. We try to be up-front with families and students so they know they’re better prepared to deal with these issues.
Q: You’ve developed several new initiatives, including the Preferred Name Information services. What is that, exactly?
A: That came from a lot of the work that the LGBT Center has done in partnerships with other aspects of the institution in trying to create a community that is going to be responsive, welcoming, and open to our changing students. Some students come in and are exploring who they are, and sometimes the name that is given to them doesn’t represent who they are. Although we don’t have the perfect solution, we are trying to make efforts and make sure students who want to have a preferred name because they’re part of a transgendered community, know that there’s a resource here. We also just made sure in working with the LGBT Center it wasn’t just one office that deals with these issues. … It forces me to continually learn about our students and developing issues. It forces me to remain relevant and think about the contemporary issues. And it forces me to always think about the individual because, at times, I’m in a role where I think about systems and meet with student leaders.
Q: What are some things that you have learned about students that you didn’t realize when you started in this role?
A: Some things that are constant, I believe. There are transitional issues that everyone has. You’re doing this for the first time, probably, and whenever you do something for the first time, there’s some stumbling. What’s developed over the last five or 10 years are students really don’t want to be put into a category and think that really represents who they are.
Q: What are the particular challenges of Penn?
A: From the student side, there are sometimes too many options and because of that, a student may freeze and not recognize which options may be best for them. Sometimes, it may be easier if they’re pointed to the place they need to go, whether it’s their career choice or the office where they can get some answers. From the staff side, it’s trying to keep up with the constant barrage. People joke about how summer is growing shorter in terms of trying to find that time to reflect. Sometimes maintaining something is a lot of work, and work that we should be emphasizing. We shouldn’t have reminders in life to tell us that we should try to appreciate the things we have. If I ever feel like in any part of my life I get it, then I need to hit the restart button because the moment I make that realization is the moment I know I’m not seeing things critically and recognizing complexities.
Q: You’re working on an Ed.D. at Penn’s Graduate School of Education. What made you decide to pursue that?
A: I knew eventually I would hit a glass ceiling and I didn’t want that to be something that stopped me from pursuing whatever options life will bring. I delayed in wanting to get it because I wanted to be more intentional about it. I didn’t want to just get it for the sake of getting it or for three more letters on your signature or business card. It really has helped me and I really thank the faculty at GSE and my adviser, [Associate Professor] Shaun Harper.
Q: What’s your dissertation topic?
A: The topic that I’m looking at is student coalitions. This stems a little bit from my work as a student examining American history and in particular, the Civil Rights Movement. It’s not just that Rosa Parks decided one day to sit in a different part of the bus and that’s how the revolution started. There was intentionality, there were people partnering together. When I look at students and how effective they are, I’m wondering when they work together, what they are getting out of it, does it change the power dynamics that they perceive within an institution, how we are working with these coalitions. That’s helped me be more mindful as I work with student leaders.
Q: I also heard you’re planning to go to Comic-Con. You’re a big comics fan?
A: I love watching documentaries, and I watched one about people attending comic conventions and the big one in San Diego. I’m fascinated about their lives and respectful of what they’re passionate about. I’m trying to bring the chaplain, Chaz Howard, with me.
Originally published on June 5, 2014