Kevin Nadal, Ph.D., is Named Distinguished Professor, the First Asian American Faculty Member to Hold the Title

Kevin Nadal, Ph.D., is Named Distinguished Professor, the First Asian American Faculty Member to Hold the Title

Kevin Nadal, Ph.D., is Named Distinguished Professor, the First Asian American Faculty Member to Hold the Title

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, Psychology Professor Kevin Nadal, Ph.D., never envisioned himself becoming a college professor. Nevertheless, on October 25, 2021, it was announced that Nadal, the proud son of Filipino immigrants, was named a Distinguished Professor—making him the first Asian-American to hold the prestigious title at John Jay College. “As a kid in Fremont, California, I didn’t really have anyone to look up to. Yes, I had my parents, grandparents, and people in the neighborhood, but the professionals around me, the teachers in my school, the people on TV, the people in government, and the people in my history books, none of them looked like me,” says Nadal. “Back then, never in a million years would I ever think that I could become an author, a professor, or an activist. Honestly, I didn’t even know what a professor was. It just really goes to show you what you can be once you know what the possibilities are and you’re exposed to them.” We sat down with Nadal to learn more about his personal and professional journey that led him to this historic moment at John Jay College.

Finding His Mentors
Nadal’s family migrated to the U.S. from the Philippines in the 1960s. As the son of immigrants and the first in his family to attend college, enrolling in college and earning his bachelor’s degree was a huge climb. While at the University of California, Irvine, he contended with imposter syndrome and did his best to “stay under the radar”—that was until a social science professor named Jeanett Castellanos, Ph.D., saw something special in him. “She wasn’t my first professor of color, but she was definitely one of only a handful. She was teaching introduction to multicultural education and she pulled me aside after class one day,” Nadal remembers. “She said, ‘Kevin can I talk to you during my office hours?’ I was terrified and positive that I had done something wrong. As many students of color often do, I presumed the worst. In that meeting she said she appreciated my participation in class and asked me if I had thought about going to graduate school. My honest first reaction was, ‘What’s graduate school?’ I seriously had no idea. Like all kids of immigrants, I knew about medical school and law school. Those were the two choices, but I didn’t know about graduate school much less getting a Ph.D.”

Castellanos broke everything down for Nadal, encouraged him to apply to the McNair Scholars Program, and genuinely asked him what areas of study appealed to him most. “Afterwards, she made these definitive statements like, ‘You’re going to graduate school and you’re going to study Filipino people.’ It wasn’t in a manipulative or pushy way; it was to show me the possibilities and to convey how much she believed in me.”

Looking back on his academic career, Nadal says he “owes everything to his mentors.” After graduating from U.C. Irvine, he went on to find another woman of color mentor while earning his master’s degree at Michigan State University, Alfiee Breland-Noble, Ph.D. “Again, she pulled me aside after class and said, ‘What are your plans after getting this master’s degree?’ I thought I was going to go back home to California and teach, but these wonderful women of color kept seeing more in me, telling me I could be all these extra things. She helped me explore the idea of a doctorate and the places where I could get it. I was really interested in New York City—because I had family in New York—and she was like, ‘Okay, you can study at Columbia.’ Once I got into Columbia, I felt like I had won an Olympic gold medal. No one in my family had ever done or even dreamt of the trajectory I was making.”

Kevin Nadal

“There was never a moment where I thought that I should be anywhere else besides CUNY.” —Kevin Nadal

Making a Difference at John Jay
Nadal has been teaching at John Jay for over 15 years—as an adjunct since 2006 and as a full-time faculty member since 2008. “There was never a moment where I thought that I should be anywhere else besides CUNY,” he says. “I had the privilege to get a doctorate degree. I have the privilege to be a professor. But who do I really want to serve? Do I want to teach these young people from upper-class families who have plenty of privileges and resources? That’s just not the population that I want to serve.” For Nadal, it all comes down to his own experience growing up, not feeling represented, not knowing what possibilities were out there. As his mentors, Castellanos, a Latinx woman, and Breland-Noble, a Black woman, did for him, Nadal takes a special pride in helping underrepresented, first-generation students see and explore their fullest academic potential.

“There were some pockets of time during my career at John Jay when I wasn’t able to teach undergrads. To be honest, I really missed it and I needed it,” says Nadal. “I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t feeling completely fulfilled, and I realized I needed to have undergraduate students in the mix of my classes because those students are the most like me when I was growing up. I need to work with young people and students of color who don’t know all the potential that they have within them. Unlocking that potential is really powerful and inspiring.”

Becoming a Distinguished Professor
After speaking with Provost Yi Li, and realizing that his h-index—a metric that measures the productivity, citations, publications, and impact of a professor—was the fourth highest in his department, Nadal was encouraged to apply for the Distinguished Professor title. “I was like, ‘Yes, it’s my turn.’ If we’re looking at just metrics alone, I deserve to be there. Yi planted the seed, and like so many of my previous mentors, he confidently said, ‘It’s done. You’re going up for this.’ He was very encouraging at that point,” says Nadal.

As the livestream of the CUNY Board of Trustees’ meeting started, Nadal gathered together his husband, kids, and a dear friend. When the agenda item of his Distinguished Professor title came up, a twinge of doubt crept up in Nadal’s mind. “It was so nerve-wracking because, even though we were told this was a formality, they already voted on it in a subcommittee, and the Chancellor approved it, there was this fear that someone could take it away from me. It’s that little bit of fear that you always carry with you as a person of color and a member of the LGBTQ+ community. I didn’t even tell anybody until it was official because of that just-in-case fear.” Fortunately for Nadal, his family, John Jay College, and the entire CUNY community, he was unanimously voted to be a Distinguished Professor.

Blazing a Trail
As a young, openly gay, Asian-American, Nadal is breaking a lot of barriers by becoming a Distinguished Professor. “When you grow up Asian-American or LGBTQ+ in this country, you fear that you’re limited to these tropes of what you can become. Earning this title means that Asian-American and LGBTQ+ young people get to see someone like them break a barrier, and that’s meaningful, not just because I hold these identities, but because I do work within these communities. I’m actually studying, researching, and advocating for LGBTQ+ people and people of color,” says Nadal. “Oftentimes, I feel like the lucky one. I wasn’t supposed to make it. I am a queer man who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s when AIDS was at its highest. I grew up in a community with gang violence, high school dropouts, and teen pregnancies. I wasn’t supposed to be here, but somehow I made it through and I’m a Distinguished Professor.”

“I grew up in a community with gang violence, high school dropouts, and teen pregnancies. I wasn’t supposed to be here, but somehow I made it through and I’m a Distinguished Professor.” —Kevin Nadal

The timing of Nadal’s Distinguished Professor announcement couldn’t have been more poignant. On October 25, 1913, Larry Itliong, a storied Filipino-American labor leader and organizer was born. Exactly 108 years later, Nadal, the son of Filipino immigrants reached an academic height no other Asian-American had ever reached at John Jay College. When he came to America from the Philippines, Itliong wanted to become a lawyer, but instead he had to work as a farmworker to survive. Still, he found a way to stand up for poor, disenfranchised communities. Together with Cesar Chavez, Itliong organized farmworkers to fight against racist and injust practices. “It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that I received this honor on Larry Itliong’s birthday. It feels so meaningful, so serendipitous. I really do view this distinction as a win for them and all of their hard work.”