In applying to become president of the nation’s largest non-profit provider of college scholarships to Asian and Pacific Islander Americans (APIAs), Noël Harmon, MA ’01, wondered “if I was ‘Asian enough’ to be in the position.”

“Which, by the way,” she adds, “is a very Asian thing to do!”

Her uncertainty partly stemmed from her experience as a Korean orphan adopted by American parents and raised in Des Moines, Iowa.

After more than two years’ experience as president and executive director of APIA Scholars, Harmon now sees her diversity of perspectives as an advantage—including her experience in Ball State University’s Student Affairs Administration in Higher Education (SAAHE) master’s program.

Based in Washington, D.C., APIA Scholars provides opportunities for students to access, complete, and succeed after post-secondary education and develop into leaders who excel in their careers and communities.

Asian and Pacific Islander Americans represent 48 distinct ethnicities and speak over 300 languages. APIAs include recent immigrants, multi-generational American families, indigenous Native communities, refugees, and American citizens and nationals from U.S. Territories and Pacific Freely Associated States, according to Harmon.

As the fastest-growing racial group—and on track to being the largest immigrant group in the U.S. by 2055—APIAs have an important role to play in the national dialogue around diversity, equity, inclusion, and representation.

APIA Scholars has so far distributed more than $150 million in aid to qualified students, two-thirds of whom live at or below the poverty line.

APIA scholarship recipients
APIA scholarship recipients gathered for a Leadership Academy in Washington, D.C., in June 2019.

Harmon came to APIA Scholars from Say Yes to Education, where she served as senior vice president for strategic partnerships. Before that, she was associate director of the Brookings Institution’s Global Cities Initiative.

Since becoming APIA Scholars president, Harmon has focused on increasing efficiency and expanding efforts to carry out the non-profit’s mission. Hiring new staff has led to “interactions and program offerings that are, we hope, more relevant, responsive, and meaningful for the students we serve,” she said.

The COVID pandemic raised new challenges. APIA Scholars partnered with some of its major funders to quickly respond to students’ urgent needs. Through Wells Fargo, an emergency aid scholarship was established. McDonald’s also funded emergency food assistance scholarships, Harmon said.

Fundamental values

Harmon chose Ball State’s SAAHE program based on its reputation as one of the best of its kind in the country.

Offered by Teachers College and co-sponsored by the Division of Student Affairs, the 30-credit master’s program prepares students to work in a wide range of college and university academic and student support services.

Her focus was residential life. Living in DeHority Complex as an assistant hall director gave her real-world experiences in addition to her coursework.

“I worked so hard when I was at BSU!” she said. “I remember working all through the night, and so did most of the other graduate students and professionals. Looking back now, 20 years ago, a strong work ethic underpinned the entire academic cohort I was with and also the Residence Life department.

It was a great place to get my start and learn some fundamental values that I have taken with me throughout my career.

After Ball State, Harmon continued her education, earning a Ph.D. in Higher Education and Student Affairs at the University of Iowa and launching her career in student affairs administration at the University of Michigan,  Western Illinois University, and the University of Iowa in Athletic Student Services.

Added perspective

While pursuing her education, Harmon also began to seriously explore her identity—a process that traces back to her adoption.

“I was able to track down the orphanage in Daegu where I was dropped off, and where I spent three months before being transferred to foster care in Seoul. I definitely underestimated the emotions I felt when looking at pictures of a place halfway around the world that is part of my history, and that is now no longer standing.

“I’ve spoken with APIA Scholars who have embarked on similar journeys. No matter how genuinely content we are in our lives, there is always that curiosity about your birth parents —what do they look like, what traits do I have that I get from them, what is my history? Now that I have a daughter, it seems even more salient.”

It also serves as one more valuable perspective for Harmon to apply in her quest to help current and future APIA students achieve their dreams.