‘We need to tell the truth more than ever’: Meet Women of the Year honoree Melissa Borja

By Rashika Jaipuriar | Indianapolis Star

MYKAL MCELDOWNEY/INDYSTAR

Melissa Borja is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women across the country who have made a significant impact. The annual program is a continuation of Women of the Century, a 2020 project that commemorated the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.

Melissa Borja is one of those educators you would want to visit during office hours as a professor at the University of Michigan’s Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies Program.

Along with teaching, she advises an Asian American graduate student group on campus, and in 2020, she started the Virulent Hate Project, a research project collecting and analyzing data around anti Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic. She splits her time between Ann Arbor and Indianapolis, where she’s been an active Hoosier, getting involved with the local National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) chapter and Faith in Indiana. Borja is in the process of publishing a book about how religious communities are involved in refugee resettlement.

But at the heart of her extensive expertise and lengthy list of accolades, there is a much more simple philosophy guiding her. She cares. She cares about her students, about her community (both communities, in Ann Arbor and Indianapolis), and the world around her.

The feeling has been heightened during the pandemic, she said, but there was one moment in her early teaching career that showed her the way. She was a professor in New York City, when a student came into her office and passed out after a drug overdose. He later died. 

Nearly a decade later, Borja still carries that experience, especially as an educator working with students.

“My job isn’t just to help them learn. I really should help them live,” Borja said. “And I really see the work I do, teaching in the classroom, mentoring a group of researchers …. I see it all as helping them live. Not just to learn. I want to give them skills to live. I want to affirm their value every day.”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Who paved the way for you?

My father served on the Asian American Advisory Commission, the state commission in Michigan. I think that was really powerful for me to see growing up. So I would say my parents were really amazing models of courage for me. 

They both left the Philippines. They both left a country that had a dictator. They came to the U.S., and they were so committed to being active political participants. They just love voting. They love being involved in making the community better.

What is your proudest moment?

Whenever I hear someone tell me that my daughter has shown integrity or courage. I love when people say that she’s bold and says the hard thing that sometimes people need to hear. I just feel really, really good about that.

I often say that one of the greatest gifts about 2020-2021 has been that I’ve been home and she’s been home, and she’s been able to see this really painful year as a launching pad for flexing our power. I’ve seen her do the same thing in her own life, and I’m really proud of her.

You didn’t say a professional accomplishment?

I think my professional accomplishments are fine, but honestly, parenting is a lot harder than getting a Ph.D. But yeah, it’s way harder.

What was your lowest moment?

One of the hardest things about this past year has been being very public about what I learned, and I’ve always centered my work on the mission to tell the truth. I think we need to tell the truth more than ever before. We need people to be bold about telling the truth more than ever before.  

We have to tell the truth, and it comes at great personal cost sometimes. And I wasn’t entirely prepared for that. I think moving forward, I know that now and (am) trying to take good care of myself and take care people around me. But that was very, very difficult to handle.

What helps you in times of adversity?

Rest matters. I think, remembering why I’m doing what I’m doing. I’m a religious person. I really leaned into my faith during times when it was a lot. So I think centering myself on purpose has really been important in the past few months. And I think when we have a deep sense of purpose, it’s easier to find courage to do the right thing. 

I also think sometimes doing public-facing work is its own idle. So the conversation that happens on Twitter and on social media, it can be its own activity. And I think one thing that has been important to me is to really focus on the most meaningful ways I can contribute to deeper understanding and better action locally, and that might not be being super active on Twitter, that might actually be a distraction. And maybe I should just focus on caring for the people around me, doing good work, speaking truthfully and courageously and focusing on local change. I think that has been really, really helpful.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I had this quote that was written on my binder in high school that was something to the effect of, ‘Be faithful to that which exists inside of you.’ And I think that was really good advice that I got from someone then, and I’m glad I followed it throughout my life.  

I would tell my younger self: You can see what the world wants you to do, but you don’t have to do that. You should do what’s right for you, and you should do what the world needs you uniquely to do.

I would tell my younger self: You can see what the world wants you to do, but you don’t have to do that. You should do what’s right for you, and you should do what the world needs you uniquely to do.

Melissa Borja

I kind of feel like that has been the story of my life, is me trying to do the right thing, trying to respond to the various forms of hurt in the world and suffering in the world, all around me, but do so in a way that honors my own values, that makes use of the particular skills and resources I have been very fortunate to have, and that speaks to the voice inside of me that articulates what my core values are and what brings me joy.

So it’s a very roundabout way of saying, ‘Be faithful to that which exists inside of you.’

I will tell this to my teenage daughter, and she’s gonna laugh at me and accuse me of being cheesy, which I am, I’m a little cheesy. But I wouldn’t be a mom of a teenager if I weren’t a little corny.

Contact Rashika Jaipuriar at rjaipuriar@gannett.com and follow her on Twitter @rashikajpr.

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