CalSERVE presidential nominee DeeJay Pepito aims to give voice to minorities

Beyond Rhetoric

Derek Remsburg/Senior Staff
CalSERVE presidential nominee DeeJay Pepito says her background gives her a unique perspective in serving minority communities.

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Editor’s note: This is one of four profiles that will be published on candidates for ASUC President. Stories on David Douglass and Rafi Lurie will appear in print and online by Tuesday.

There is a street in Bakersfield that marks the divide between the middle-class residents and the less privileged ones, according to CalSERVE presidential candidate DeeJay Pepito.

Once you cross this street, Pepito says, “you start seeing more people of color.”

When Pepito was 7 years old, she and her family crossed from the poorer side of town to the richer suburban area, becoming one of few Pilipinos in a community dominated by white residents.

As Pepito describes it, on one end lies a community full of cookie-cutter houses. Drive farther down, however, and everything is different. The roads are full of cracks and potholes; instead of spotless single-family homes, there are trailer parks and grimy fast-food joints.

With the move, Pepito learned firsthand what it feels like to not belong. In high school, she was one of 17 Pilipinos in a student body of more than 2,500 people, she said.

“It was hard for me to relate to others because I was always placed as the ‘other’,” Pepito said. “It was difficult growing up and trying to figure out who I was and what my identity was.”

Even today, Pepito is one of about 800 Pilipinos on a campus of nearly 36,000. Pepito says she hopes to represent the Pilipino community, along with other minority groups, such as women, that she feels are underrepresented in the ASUC.

Since her freshman year, Pepito has worked to improve student opportunities and bridge the divide between students of different backgrounds. In particular, Pepito has been heavily involved with the Pilipino Academic Student Services and bridges Multicultural Resource Center. She was also directly involved in facilitating the move from Eshleman Hall to the SURGE spaces as part of the Lower Sproul redevelopment process when she was student spaces director.

Along with independent Senator Sadia Saifuddin, Pepito also oversees the Multicultural Fund, which allocates money to student groups that host multicultural events.

“At the beginning of our term, she wanted to do so much, and while that was really admirable, she just didn’t have the bandwidth to take on the amount that she did,” Saifuddin said. “She learned how to say no to some opportunities and weigh the costs and benefits of each one.”

Although admired by many of her fellow CalSERVE senators, Pepito has also been criticized as being too outspoken and even aggressive.

“I would say she is one of the more ‘aggressive’ figures on the floor, including both the positive and negative connotations that may or may not come with that specific verbiage,” said Student Action Senator Tom Seung Kun Lee.

According to Lee, in one instance, Pepito was among a handful of senators who asked for people who were in support of Measure S, a city measure that would have banned people from sitting on sidewalks in commercial areas, to stand up in an ASUC meeting. In an already hostile environment, Lee was the sole person standing.

“I would say the conversation was unproductive because some senators came into the chamber with their minds set and no intention of listening to others or compromising,” Lee said.

Pepito’s assertive attitude may be rooted in her family’s tough experiences during her adolescence. The youngest of three children, Pepito says she gathers her strength from her mother and father, whom she claims as inspirations.

As an immigrant, Pepito’s mother was unable to get a job, as her optometry license from the Philippines was not considered valid in the United States. Meanwhile, Pepito’s father worked to support the costs of raising three children. Throughout Pepito’s childhood, the family struggled financially, especially after the economic downturn in 2008.

“It gave her great insight on the disparity between the privileges and resources that are available to families with a higher socioeconomic status and those with lower statuses,” said her older brother Lyndon Pepito.

Recently, the family has had more than just finances to worry about. In March of last year, just as her senate campaign had begun, Pepito received a shocking call. Her father, who is in his mid-60s, had experienced multiple strokes and was in the hospital in critical condition.

“Dad was always my superhero,” Pepito recalled. “When I had gone home and seen how the stroke had affected him … I remember thinking, I have to be my dad’s superhero now.”

Pepito hopes to carry over this heroic instinct to her role as student body president, if she is elected next week, by creating a more welcoming and safe campus environment and increasing the accessibility of campus administrators for current and future students.

“It’s easy at Cal to feel like you’re a small fish in a big pond,” Pepito said. “In reality, we’re all big fishes. We just need to really learn about one another more, about ourselves and really seize the opportunity to make a change.”

Contact Alison Fu at [email protected].

The print version of this story incorrectly switched Jason Bellet and DeeJay Pepito’s platforms. In fact, Pepito’s platforms are improving campus safety, advocating for public higher education and increasing accountability of campus administrators.