As a child of Korean immigrants who learned English at age five and a first-generation college graduate, Sun Yu Cotter, MPH, faced challenges in the process of achieving the level of success she has today. Rather than let these challenges immobilize her, she sees them as her superpower of sorts, especially in the predominantly white field of global health. "Children of immigrants possess a great deal of resourcefulness and problem-solving skills that come with navigating multiple languages and cultures," she says. "But we also face barriers that come with being the first to go to college and supporting our own families at a young age let alone seeing ourselves in a career in global health." While Cotter's family was low-income, she was privileged to go to a well-resourced high school and knows many students with similar backgrounds do not have the same opportunities. That is what drives her to diversify the global health workforce as the Deputy Director of the UC Global Health Institute. “Global health has deeply colonial roots and continues to be dominated by white people,” says Cotter. “I want students of color across the University of California (UC) system, especially first-generation students and those from immigrant families to see a little piece of themselves in me and in my journey.”
Cotter served as a community health Peace Corps volunteer in rural Uzbekistan. “As a Peace Corps volunteer, I realized how critical it is to build relationships and trust within the community and communicate in the local language, when possible. And most importantly, listen to the community,” she says and brings this experience to her global health work. She realized that growing up with English as her second language and navigating two different cultures gave her an important perspective in this field. “In some ways I feel like children of immigrants are kind of built for global health work because we have a certain level of empathy and understanding that is often times missing in this work,” she says.
As an Asian American woman leader in the field, Cotter often feels that her contributions are overlooked and invisible even when she managed high profile clinical trials across Africa with over 250,000 study participants early in her career at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF). When she traveled to the field, she experienced harassment rooted in the global fetishization of Asian women. But when she attempted to advocate for herself, her white colleagues in leadership positions dismissed her trauma. During Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, she is reflecting on those experiences, taking back control of her narrative, and honoring the contributions of Asian American women. In a society that is still reluctant to give credit to Asian women, Cotter says, “I’m learning to unapologetically take up space and speak up about the challenges I face as an Asian American woman in global health in order to help eliminate the toxicity in this field."
Cotter is inspired by women like her friend and colleague May Sudhinaraset, PhD—an associate professor at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)'s Fielding School of Public Health—who, like Cotter, is Asian American and a mother of young children. While traveling in the field together, "I had someone who supported and understood the complexities of navigating global health work as a relatively new mom," says Dr. Sudhinaraset. These shared experiences and identities between Cotter and Dr. Sudhinaraset show the need for this kind of support within the field. "It makes me realize that the support of a mom-researcher is instrumental in uplifting other women, particularly women of color, in not only navigating, but thriving in global health,” says Dr. Sudhinaraset. That is what drives Cotter's focus now.
As the Deputy Director of UCGHI, she’s committed to helping shape the future of global health and academia, and she is passionate about “cultivating the new generation of global health learners across the 10 UC campuses” through racial justice and diversity. She is the co-founder and co-chair of the UCGHI Black Lives Matter Task Force and serves on multiple DEI/anti-racism committees at UCSF and the University of California Office of the President (UCOP). When reflecting on her position and identity she says, “In doing the work, I also feel that it is important to acknowledge my proximity to whiteness and recognize that I benefit from a system that also harms me and others in the AAPI community.”
Recognizing the need for a stronger pathway in global health for young students of color, Cotter serves on the steering committee for UCSF’s Global REACH (Research, Education, Action and Communities for Health), which provides paid global and community health summer internships to rising high school seniors in the San Francisco Bay Area. She wants to see the program expand across all 10 UC campuses. Inez Bailey, the Director of the program as well as the Director of Education & Strategic Initiatives at UCSF's Institute for Global Health Sciences states, "If we can make the pathway accessible, by removing the obstacles that prevent entry into the field, then we can change the face of global health leaders of tomorrow." Cotter hopes that through this effort, the next generation of professionals will transform global health.
Cotter also wants to address the disrespect and mistreatment she has personally experienced at work and the ongoing hate towards people of Asian descent. Last year, she shared her reflections after the Atlanta mass shooting targeting Asian women and expressed the deep rage and pain at both the rise in anti-Asian hate and the silence surrounding it. She wants people in global health and in the workplace at large to be mindful of AAPI experiences (which includes more than 30 countries and ethnic groups and over 100 different languages) and acknowledge the impact of trauma related to Anti-Asian hate as well as intergenerational trauma. For that, Cotter has a message for her AAPI colleagues and students at the University of California: "I see you and I invite you to join me in speaking up, especially when you are disrespected and gaslit and be kind to yourself when you realize you are gaslighting yourself. While self-advocacy is exhausting, there has never been a more critical time for us to speak our truths and be heard, be appreciated as our full selves, and be valued for where we come from and what we bring to these spaces. You deserve to be treated with respect and dignity every day and not just during AAPI Heritage Month.”
Sun Cotter invites first generation BIPOC students that are interested in global health to connect with her via email at Sun.Cotter@ucsf.edu.