“I really like seeing tangible change, and I really don’t like seeing systems that don’t work well,” said Julie Ajinkya ’03 after I asked why she decided to go into the field of higher education policy. “I’m a pathological problem solver.”
These “pathological” problem-solving tendencies quickly became apparent during our conversation. The desire to work toward equity and solve the problems of racial and gendered injustice has driven Ajinkya’s life, from her time as a student at Amherst throughout her remarkable career.
As the current Senior Vice President of Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) Scholars, and a Visiting Professor of Government at Cornell University’s campus in Washington, D.C., Ajinkya’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in education and public policy are clearly evident to anyone who meets her. Over the course of our interview, Ajinkya and I discussed the fundamental aspects of her life and work, and how her time at Amherst shaped her into the person she is today — someone whose life’s mission is to push the boundaries of higher education, ultimately making it more inclusive and open to all.
Finding Community at Amherst College
Ajinkya’s journey starts in New Jersey, where she was raised in a South Asian American community by Indian immigrant parents. She went to a diverse high school, and engaged in activities like debate, which she credits with first cultivating her love of political philosophy and diversity of thought. According to Ajinkya, she didn’t know much about Amherst before applying, but some of her friends through her debate network attended the college, which piqued her own interest in the school.
“I was expected to go down a traditional path, and maybe go to Rutgers or another large university where a lot of folks in our community had gone before,” she said. “Frankly, at the time in India, liberal arts were kind of a field that you went into if you didn’t make it into any other more lucrative, successful track. My parents were surprised at my decision and weren’t the most supportive. But I still decided that I really, really thought Amherst was the place for me.”
Indeed, Ajinkya was able to find her place at Amherst. Individuals who may have been “outliers” in high school, she recalled, were able to find their niche at Amherst with relative ease, adding that Amherst was a place where they could “work hard, party hard, and make a difference in the world.”
The desire to chart her own path caused Ajinkya to try several different major pathways, but she ultimately settled on political science — partly due to the classes, but also because of the department’s faculty. One of Ajinkya’s most important mentors was Domenic J. Paino 1955 Professor of Political Science and Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies Amrita Basu, a trailblazing South Asian woman in political science. Basu took Ajinkya under her wing and set her on a trajectory of studying gender justice and social movements. “I really credit [Basu] with changing the way I looked at the world,” said Ajinkya.
Outside of the classroom, Ajinkya developed her own voice and political consciousness in other ways, connecting what she was learning in her academics with student social and political activism. “I was really learning how to be a rabble rouser,” she said, citing her involvement with groups such as Amherst Students Acting Politically (ASAP) and the Amherst Feminist Alliance.
Through ASAP, Ajinkya led a takeover of Valentine Dining Hall to have a “No Sweat” fashion show, in an effort to draw attention to sweatshops and garment workers. And through the Amherst Feminist Alliance, Ajinkya and others fought to see “feminism in practice, not only on our campus, but at national rallies,” a natural extension of her learning in the classroom.
“We were really trying to figure out what our place was in the world, in particular because Amherst was teaching us how to think instead of what to think, and to always be critical of everything that was around us,” said Ajinkya, whose activism and advocacy work as a student is something that can be seen even in her career today. “I really, really remember those times fondly.”
Ajinkya credits her time at Amherst for shaping her into the person she is today and exposing her to diversity of thought and perspective. Her education on political philosophy and the activist work she engaged in, in particular, is the “reason I have centered justice and fairness in my own career, and in the way I’m raising my family and the way I live my life,” she said.
Resilience and persistence were hallmarks of Ajinkya’s time at Amherst, and both are also qualities that she continues to carry today — qualities that have driven her to dedicate her career to educational equity. “When I was at Amherst, there were moments where it was definitely made clear that there was a type of student that was just expected to do well at Amherst,” she said. “And I knew I wasn’t part of that definition, but I made it my life’s purpose to basically make it so that students of color would feel like the norm at Amherst, instead of feeling like the margins.”
Where Policy, Activism, and Education Intersect
Following graduation, Ajinkya worked for the Institute for Policy Studies, a Marxist think tank in Washington, D.C. However, because she was just out of undergrad and did not have the doctoral degrees that some of her coworkers did, she felt that there were times where her “credibility was checked at the door,” and she was seen as less capable or qualified.
This led Ajinkya to go back to school and pursue graduate studies in political science. She attended Cornell University for her master’s and her Ph.D., where she studied social movements and political theory, focusing on race and gender in particular.
“I was working in the space of social movements in practice with that think tank, but I really had questions about how powerful social movements could be, and what the difference was between social movements that worked and accomplished change versus others that sort of petered off,” Ajinkya said. “I chose to go to Cornell because there were some fantastic social movement scholars there … [and] it was like a nice through line. [I] was trying to follow in the footsteps of people I admired but also trying to forge my own path and my own ideas in graduate school.”
After graduating from Cornell, Ajinkya returned to the world of public policy instead of pursuing the route of traditional academia. “Instead of stopping at identifying and describing problems, which is what I felt like graduate school was helping me do, I wanted to take it one step further and understand how you could try to solve those social problems,” she said. “So to me it was just a no-brainer that I had to [return] to the field of public policy.”
Ajinkya spent a few years at the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank, where her research focused on a wide variety of policy issues and how they intersected with race in particular. While working at the CAP, Ajinkya also taught night classes at Cornell, which allowed her to see clearly how students, and especially students from marginalized backgrounds, felt that they could “fall through the cracks.”
“I thought, ‘Wow, if students are having a hard time in this type of environment, I can’t imagine what the majority of students are experiencing,’” Ajinkya recalled, adding that the majority of today’s college students are students of color, students who are working, or students who have dependents — students that the system of higher education in the U.S. was not originally designed for.
The power of higher education as one of the few systems that “can change an entire family’s trajectory” ultimately led her to focus on education policy. “That’s the kind of fight I wanted to be part of — constantly pushing the system of higher education to do better and be more inclusive, and to not just keep [that type of] opportunity an exclusive privilege for a few,” she said. “That’s something that could help us as a society grow.”
Thus, Ajinkya began working at the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), a nonprofit research and policy organization focused on making access to higher education equitable for all students. At IHEP, she worked on increasing equity in higher education and increasing college degree completion rates for marginalized students, centering diversity, equity, and inclusion in her research. One of the most impactful campaigns from her time at IHEP, Ajinkya said, was working alongside policymakers to open up Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated students.
“We worked in coalition with businesses, faith leaders, correctional advocates, justice advocates, [and] education advocates to convince policymakers with strong research, that it was in everyone’s best interest to remove the barrier for Pell Grants for incarcerated students, and ultimately it worked,” she said. “I definitely credit my long history with learning about justice and equity, at Amherst, at Cornell, with [accomplishing] that type of change in practice.”
Educational Equity for A/P/A Students
Currently, Ajinkya is the senior vice president of APIA Scholars, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating educational equity and opportunity for Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian students. According to Ajinkya, she was originally drawn to the position because of its specific focus on the Asian American/Pacific Islander community, which aligned with the previous work she’d done throughout her career focusing on race, and which also aligned with the development of her own racial and ethnic identity.
Ajinkya stated that she was also drawn to APIA Scholars because of the role it plays in disproving the model minority myth, which, she says, “is such a perfect example of how poorly understood race is in this country.”
“[The model minority myth] uses this incredibly vast label [of Asian/Pacific/American] that pulls together 50+ subgroups, and treats them as a monolith,” Ajinkya added. “[It] just assumes, that, despite [the] different political, immigration, and conflict histories that all of these communities come from, A/P/A students are unquestionably succeeding and affluent, and just don’t [face the] barriers that other communities of color have. I just knew fundamentally how wrong that was, because I’m a researcher and I know what happens when you disaggregate the data. So I felt like it was really important at this point in my life to be focusing on students’ success from the community I came from, and also serving as a role model in the field of public policy.”
At APIA Scholars, Ajinkya has been particularly involved in raising awareness about the importance of AANAPISIs, or Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions. ANAPISIs are similar to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) or Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), but they are specifically meant for A/P/A students. Ajinkya has worked on policy campaigns to increase federal funding for AANAPISIs, the amount of which is now four times what it was just two years ago.
“I really felt strongly that higher ed needed to do a better job as a system of highlighting the importance of AANAPISIs, the same way that we’ve been able to invest in meaningful ways in HBCUs and HSIs,” said Ajinkya. “[With increases in federal funding] we have been able to see impact and to drive more resources to the institutions that are helping the most underserved students in our community.”
Leading By Example
While she has made such an impact in the world of public policy, Ajinkya also hopes to serve as a role model for others who might want to follow in her footsteps. “Back when I was trying to figure out what my next step would be, I didn’t have policymakers who looked like me and made [policymaking] feel like a realistic path,” she said. “And so I’d like to be a role model for students who also want to work in public service, or [want to] change systems for progress.”
This desire shines through in her personal life as well. “I have two boys,” Ajinkya said. “One is six, and one is ten. And honestly, my dream for them would be that they are able to understand their place in this world, in a way that I didn’t have the ability to enjoy. I want to help them understand the importance of representation, and how they are not at the margins of society, but that they are very much what American society is. If I can [show] that by example, personally and professionally, that would be a dream come true.”
Throughout our conversation, Ajinkya’s efforts to transform higher education resonated with me deeply. She is not the kind of person who sits idly by when there is change to be made or work to be done, and her extensive research and advocacy, drawn so strongly from her personal experience and education, make that clear. When I asked if she had any advice she’d go back in time to give to her undergraduate self, Ajinkya paused.
“I think I’d tell my undergraduate self, don’t shy away from trying to convince people of things that you know are right,” she said. “Always listen to folks and try to understand where people are coming from — but really dig in when you feel something is wrong and you know how to fix it.”
Such advice truly shows the extent of Ajinkya’s “pathological” problem-solving tendencies. But as anyone can see, she is a pathological problem solver for the better — someone who is dedicated to creating positive change, and who perseveres to make an impact in her chosen field no matter what.