A Fil-American academic leader speaks out

Published April 25, 2021, 11:01 AM

by Deedee Siytangco


FIRST LAY LEADER Dr. A. Gabriel Esteban, Ph.D.,  in the De Paul campus

Meet a Fil-American, who has distinguished himself in the world of the academe in the US—A. Gabriel Esteban, PhD, the 12th president of DePaul University in Chicago, the largest Catholic university in the US. He assumed the presidency on July 1, 2017, the first lay leader in DePaul’s history.

Under Dr. Esteban’s leadership, DePaul developed its current strategic plan, which calls for deepening the university’s commitment to its Catholic, Vincentian, and urban mission, ensuring an inclusive campus environment, and preparing all students for global citizenship and success.

His outstanding achievements make his family proud of Dr. Esteban. In his early years as president, DePaul was a top producer of award recipients in the prestigious national Fulbright U.S. Student Program. For the first time, the Peace Corps ranked DePaul among its top volunteer-producing colleges and universities. More than 90 percent of 2018 graduates found jobs or were continuing their education within six months of graduation. Many academic programs received Top 25 national rankings, including the School of Cinematic Arts, which the Hollywood Reporter and Variety both ranked on their lists of best film schools, as well as the College of Communication, which in 2019 was listed as a Top 5 graduate program for Public Relations and Advertising.

One of Dr. Esteban’s priorities is accessibility and transparency. He began a new fall tradition by giving a State of the University address to share progress on strategic goals and top priorities. He also meets monthly with Faculty Council leaders and with the Staff Council and hears from students through Student Government Association officeholders. He also hosts small gatherings called Coffee & Conversation with faculty and staff.

Dr. Esteban and his wife, Josephine, acclimated quickly to Chicago and prioritized meeting a broad cross-section of the DePaul family. Before arriving at DePaul, he had extensive experience in higher education. Most recently, he served as president of Seton Hall University, the first layman to head the Catholic institution in New Jersey. Prior to Seton Hall, he served in senior-level leadership positions andon the faculty of higher education institutions in Arkansas, Texas, and the Philippines.

Dr. Esteban holds a doctorate in business administration from the Graduate School of Management of the University of California, Irvine, and a master’s in Japanese business studies from Chaminade University in Honolulu. He earned his MBA and bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of the Philippines. He was also a Fujitsu scholar in Japan.

We must all learn to live together as brothers of perish together as fools.

—Martin Luther King

Dr. Esteban has served American higher education in a number of national roles, including past membership on the Accreditation Review Council of Higher Learning. He is an emeritus board member of Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education. He is a celebrated leader and advocate for minorities.  Dr. Esteban and Josephine have a daughter, Ysabella, a medical doctor like her husband Matthew.

He shared with us his letter to the university students, faculty, and staff recently. I suppose all the racial tensions he has personally experienced made him write this poignant letter.

“I write today as an immigrant and Asian-American, who has called this land of promise home for the past 33 years. It is the country which gave my wife and me the opportunity to transform our lives through higher education. It is the country where our daughter was born, raised, educated, and where she and her husband are building their lives in service of others.

The United States I know is a country filled with individuals with big and welcoming hearts. From generous donors who made scholarships available to students like us, to the kind oral surgeon who cut his bill when he realized we were struggling students; from the many individuals who kept the food pantry at my alma mater stocked for students in need like us, to the many people in the small towns and cities we lived in who welcomed us into their communities, and to my mentors who helped shape my career: they will always have our gratitude. All played a role in helping us achieve our dreams.

More than most countries, the United States has been viewed as a big cultural mosaic of people from around the world. More than any country, we have been indelibly strengthened by the diversity of ideas, faiths, and cultures.

However, the past few months and, indeed the past few years, have yet again shattered the image of this great land of promise. From the murder of George Floyd to the massacre in Atlanta, attacks on people of color have escalated. While I am not fearful for my own safety, I find myself constantly worrying about the safety of my wife, daughter, and our friends of color.

I am also painfully aware as Asian-Americans, we will always be seen as outsiders by some.

Being called derogatory names face-to-face, yes, even in Chicago, is a fact of life. Being told to go back home is confusing—where is home? Being called an affirmative action hire is not unusual. Being comforted and told to ignore comments by racists is a lot easier when it is not directed toward you or your family.

I write this message now because I believe as a society we are at a tipping point. Since moving to the United States over 30 years ago, I have never before seen this country as divided as it is today. As with other inflection points in our history, it is time to make a stand for what we believe in as a nation. Are we a country that judges the worth of its citizens by the color of their skin? Are we to be judged by our faith? Are we to be judged by our gender or sexual orientation? Are we to be judged by the size of our bank account? Or should we be judged by who we are as individuals, revealed by how we live our lives?

Through all of the challenges, I have found comfort in my favorite Scripture passage: ‘So faith, hope, love remain … but the greatest of these is love,’ ​1 Corinthians 13:13. I have faith that there are enough people of goodwill who will stand up and join me in condemning all acts of violence and hate toward people who are different from us. It is my hope that we commit to treat each other with dignity and concern, because I believe that, in the words of St. Vincent de Paul, ‘love is inventive to infinity.’

Maraming salamat.”

Cheers, Dr, Esteban! Your dad, the late great dean of the De La Salle Medical School, would have been so proud of you, as we all are, your Filipino relatives!