AAPI Heritage Month Q&A: Fostering community, encouraging support, and sharing culture

May is Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, also known as Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month. As a firm that understands the importance and impact of company culture, Atwell also recognizes the significance and value of one’s ethnic culture in all aspects of their life. We want to acknowledge and celebrate this by highlighting three of our AAPI employees: Ahna Quichocho, Health, Safety, and Sustainability Coordinator based in Texas; Kylyn Sasaki, Project Engineer with the Public Works Team in Seattle, WA; and Sumanth Pobala, Senior Data Analyst based in North Carolina.

Read on to learn about their specific cultures, how we can support the AAPI community, and the influence their cultures have in their professional and personal lives.

How do you identify within the AAPI community?

Quichocho: I’m a native Pacific Islander of the U.S. territory of Guam.

Sasaki: I was born and raised in Hawaii, but I am Japanese American.

Pobala: I identify as an Indian within the South Asian community (which is part of the broader AAPI group).

Tell us about your education, training, and work experience.

Quichocho: I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin where I double-majored in Sustainability Studies and Business. I started my journey at Atwell two days after graduation.

Sasaki: I earned a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Engineering from the University of Nevada, then returned home to Hawaii to participate in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) graduate program for two years, where I gained experience in civil works, environmental projects, cost engineering, design, and regulation. After that, I transitioned to the role of Specifications Engineer at USACE for one year before relocating to Seattle and joining Blueline, which was acquired by Atwell in 2023.

Pobala: I have a master’s degree in data science from the University of Michigan at Dearborn. While there, I interned at one of Michigan’s largest energy companies, supporting its community lighting department with sales analytics and reporting services. I joined Atwell after receiving my degree, where I was initially on the Land Solutions team before transitioning to the IT team.

What do you love the most about your culture?

Quichocho: I love how family-focused it is. We are very welcoming to all. Our families are huge so there’s never a shortage of love and support, whether you’re a first cousin or a fifth cousin. There’s a celebration every weekend for birthdays, weddings, baby showers, and graduations.

Sasaki: I love the togetherness of family, eating traditional Japanese food during the holidays, and the inherent kindness and selflessness engrained in our community.

Pobala: I value the vast diversity of Indian culture, which is exemplified through its stunning architecture and landscapes across the region. Cities like Hyderabad, Mumbai, and Bangalore  illustrate the blend of tradition and modernity, and allow us to experience history wherever we go. This strengthens my connection to my heritage while serving as a daily reminder of our rich history and spiritual depth.

What is one thing you wish people knew about your culture?

Quichocho: Guam is a U.S. territory, and if you fly through Hawaii then you don’t need a passport to visit. The island is very small, so everyone knows everyone, even if you leave the island to live elsewhere. If you say you’re from Guam, then you are family with anyone else from Guam.

Sasaki: In my culture, we are very respectful, thoughtful, and work hard to do our best. We prioritize others’ well-being above our own.

Pobala: Each corner of India has its own unique language, religion, and traditions, as well as amazing cuisine—there’s a reason we’re called the “Land of Cultures!” Our music and dances, such as Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Odissi, Carnatic, and Hindustani aren’t just art forms; they’re lifelines of our celebrations, carrying the essence and stories of each region, holding a piece of our collective history and spirit.

What are some of the most meaningful traditions or practices from your culture?

Quichocho: Many traditions are rooted in Catholicism, the primary religion in Guam. The baptism or christening of a new baby is very meaningful, and especially significant to me. In our culture, we call the godmother “Nina” and I have the privilege of being a Nina for the first baby of the next generation of our family.

Sasaki: For the Japanese New Year, we celebrate with my grandma’s traditional ozone soup (also known as mochi soup) which brings good health, good fortune, and longevity for the new year.

Pobala: Many of us engage in spiritual practices each day with rituals like puja and aarti, where we offer prayers to our deities. These practices strengthen our personal connection to the divine, and sacred texts like the Vedas and Bhagavad Gita keep our spiritual traditions alive while providing philosophical insights to guide our everyday lives. Festivals like Diwali, Dussehra, and Holi bring everyone together to celebrate with joy and enthusiasm across the country.

How has your heritage shaped the person you are today and influenced your career?

Quichocho: I’m always motivated to bring more awareness about our island and provide more representation for it. I also want to bring new opportunities to the next generation, just like my elders did for me. Having such a big support network has allowed me to experience many different career fields and volunteer opportunities.

Sasaki: My culture has instilled a deep sense of respect for others, especially for my elders. Growing up in a culture that values hard work and prioritizes education has driven me to pursue excellence in every area of my life, from academics, to sports and hobbies, to my career.

Pobala: I feel a sense of belonging in connection to my culture and the greater AAPI community. There’s an emphasis on diversity, ethics, spirituality, family, and community that have shaped my personal values and professional decisions. My heritage has fostered a strong work ethic, adaptability, and respect for organizational hierarchies. It has enhanced my ability to tackle challenges creatively and make meaningful contributions to diverse and various work environments.

Have you faced any challenges as an AAPI in your education or career?

Quichocho: Because Guam is so small and there is such a small community of Chamorro (the native people of Guam) people in the States, not many people understand my culture or passion about our holidays and traditions. I can’t always make certain events or travel to see family, so it can get lonely. Thankfully, with FaceTime and other technology I can still participate in these events, just in a different way.

Sasaki: I encountered challenges centered around the limited representation of AAPI peers in my university classes. It made me feel isolated and at times it affected my confidence in the field.

Pobala: I’ve been fortunate to have mostly positive experiences due to the supportive atmosphere I was raised in, which allowed me to thrive academically and professionally.

Why is AAPI visibility important in the AEC industry?

Quichocho: We can provide knowledge and insight unique to our specific cultures. For example, Guam experiences disastrous storms and typhoons that can destroy and deplete the resources of the island. This has fostered an extremely resourceful mindset amongst the community where we are familiar with repurposing different materials and supplies to rebuild structures without negatively impacting the surrounding habitats.

Sasaki: AAPI professionals in leadership roles provide inspiration and motivation for individuals from similar backgrounds. Having someone to look up to can encourage AAPI individuals to pursue careers in the industry and work towards career advancement.

Pobala: AAPI visibility helps everyone in the industry better understand diversity and innovation, because we can apply aspects of our cultures and experiences to our work. The clients we serve are diverse, so the AEC professional workforce should reflect that, which can improve relationships and services to various communities. Lastly, cross-cultural collaboration that brings global perspectives to local projects would be a great thing to see.

In your opinion, how have AAPI individuals contributed to the industry, as well as to American culture?

Pobala: We bring innovation and a unique entrepreneurial spirit, especially to sectors like technology and business. There are a number of AAPI individuals in key positions at major companies, where we drive technological advancements and strategic growth. Culturally, we’ve contributed to America’s landscape through vibrant traditions, arts, and cuisine. Our representation in media offers diverse perspectives that shape narratives within popular culture. These contributions not only bolster major industries, but also deepen America’s appreciation for diversity and cultural progress.

What does it look like to support the AAPI community at work and beyond?

Sasaki: People can advocate for inclusivity and raise awareness and understanding of AAPI culture, history, and experiences. This can look like organizing educational workshops or discussions to celebrate AAPI heritage.

The amount of media with AAPI narratives and characters as the focal point is growing. What are some books, movies, or other media that have resonated with you?

Quichocho: There aren’t a lot of popular movies or media about Guam, but “Operation Christmas Drop” was filmed there and highlights some of the natural beauty of the island and its people.

Pobala: The movies “Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama” and “Mahabharat” are adaptations of epic tales from Indian mythology, capturing the complexities of familial feuds, politics, righteousness, and philosophical and moral lessons. “Malgudi Days” by R.K. Narayan is a collection of short stories set in a fictional South Indian town, delving into the everyday lives of its residents and typical Indian life. “The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda” includes all of Vivekananda’s writings and speeches, giving insight into Indian spirituality, ethics, and cultural ethos.

If you were born, raised, or have visited your country of ethnic origin, what is a favorite memory from that time? If you haven’t been, what would you look forward to the most?

Quichocho: My favorite memory of Guam was going back last summer after Typhoon Mawar hit, to help with recovery efforts. Despite the physical devastation, the whole island was in good spirits and there was no vandalism or crime. You saw neighbors helping each other, hosting dinners, and babysitting. Everyone helped everyone to rebuild the community together.

Sasaki: I’ve only ever been to Japan for work purposes, so I’d love to visit for a reason other than work so I can learn more about my culture and where I came from.

Pobala: I was born and raised in India; my journey in the United States began in 2019 when I pursued my master’s degree. I plan to visit India once a year. My favorite memories are those times spent surrounded by people who have known me my whole life as we catch up and create more cherished memories together.

 

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