“Let’s Talk Story”: (Re)searching Your Passions, Power, and Potential

Photo of Sean with two Bruin Ambassadors wearing UCLA blue polos at a campus event.

Hey there, new Bruins! Congratulations and welcome to the Bruin family! My name is Sean Sugai, and I am a fourth-year student double majoring in Human Biology and Society and Anthropology with a minor in Public Health. Born and raised in Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi, I am also a proud first-generation and out-of-state college student from an immigrant family and the Hawaiʻi public education system.

There is a phrase we say in Hawaiʻi that causes more than a few stares, raised eyebrows, and double takes from my friends at UCLA who are from the mainland (or the continental US). When people from Hawaiʻi want to catch up with old friends or pass time by sharing memories, we say “let’s talk story.” As a son of Filipino and Japanese immigrant parents, talking story and sharing memories with those around me have been central to my identity and sense of belonging. When I came to college, I struggled to find my footing on campus–from the new food, friends, and coursework to being an entire ocean away from home, I experienced moments that challenged my self-image and how I defined what it means to be successful. However, I found strength in my friends from home and in those moments where we talked story, recalling old memories, confiding in each other for emotional support, and dreaming about where we hope to go one day.

Stories are powerful tools for change, and I learned to harness the potential of storytelling during my time at UCLA through my everyday conversations, coursework, and even research projects. As an Anthropology major, I am not only at the front of critical conversations about social inequalities, but I am also engaging with what it means to use storytelling as a method of sharing knowledge, illuminating personal experiences, and centering the voices of those around me. In the classroom, I engage critical theory in deep discussions on historical texts and current social science research, and through research, I learn how to apply these methodologies and critique theories, effectively placing me once again at the forefront of these critical discourses and debates in the social sciences and beyond.

Most importantly, research at UCLA has given me the opportunity to explore my passions for talking story and empowering people in my communities in Hawaiʻi and Los Angeles. I have been overjoyed and honored to participate in the UCLA Lemelson Anthropological Honors Program, the UCLA/Keck Humanistic Inquiry Undergraduate Research Award and Undergraduate Research Fellows Program through Undergraduate Research Center–Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, and the UCLA Center for Community Engagement Data Justice Scholars Program and Changemaker Scholar Program. Outside of these programs, I am also an Undergraduate Research Assistant for the Wagman Lab at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and the UCLA Heat Lab through the Institute for Society and Genetics. Similar to research, I have also taught a seminar in Spring 2022 called “(Re)considering Race and Heat: How Confronting Climate Change Reveals Anti-Racist Futures”  under the mentorship of Dr. Bharat Jayram Venkat and will be teaching a seminar in Spring 2023 called “Oceanic Filipinx Studies: Currents of Anticolonial and Abolitionist Futures in Hawaiʻi” under the mentorship of Dr. Evyn Lê Espiritu Gandhi.

In all of these spaces, I engage with issues of racial, environmental, and reproductive justice using multiple methodologies, especially oral histories, ethnography, and semi-structured interviews. UCLA has opened my eyes to the possibilities of research that is, at once, community-engaged, historically situated, politically involved, and justice-oriented. For me, these experiences have been priceless, as I have gained immense research and faculty mentorship, as well as financial support for my tuition and research expenses.

As you think about your next steps, I encourage you to think about how UCLA can get you where you want to go without losing yourself in the process. For me, it was bringing a piece of home–talking stories–with me to Los Angeles and turning it into drive and momentum to pursue a professional career in research. And for you, it will be beautifully and authentically different. Tell your own story, and be unapologetic. Be fearless, brave, and passionate. All I ask is that you don’t forget to sit down with a friend sometime, catch up with each other, reminisce on the past, dream about the future, or anything else that comes to mind because there is power in talking story.

Once again, congratulations and welcome to the Bruin family!

Your friend,

Sean Sugai

Photo of Sean at a beach wearing a white shirt.