Connection and Community: Emily Loui’s Pursuit to Transform the Student Experience


Hannah Rosenberg

Hidden between the buzz of students jumping from academics to different aspects of student life such as student organizations and other extracurricular programs, stand the people who make it all possible. The faculty operating Student Affairs often go unnoticed; in fact, many students never even meet these individuals and teams who are champions of enriching the student experience. Without them, non-academic, but highly fulfilling programs, such as the Alternative Breaks program, would not be possible. Meet Emily Loui, the National and International Community Service Program Manager here at UC San Diego. Loui’s list of student initiatives stands as tall as her passion for enhancing the student community around her.

Loui was sitting next to a dissected cadaver during an anatomy lab at the UC Davis School of Medicine, when she first questioned her healthcare career path. At the time, the clear road to working in the medical field felt safe because of the tangible steps that are set out in front of those who pursue it. The lack of direction for less ridgid career routes was terrifying to med school-era Loui.

While she always knew there were people who “helped students,” on college campuses, Loui didn’t know that Student Affairs was an entire industry geared towards bettering college student quality of life. Originally initially hired at UC San Diego to oversee the nursing program at UC San Diego Extension, and then working as the Director of Alumni Affairs for Biological Sciences and School of Medicine, it was a particular conversation outside of the nursing program that changed her career trajectory. Seven years before she would begin her first job in Student Affairs, Loui had a particular meeting with the Executive Director of the Center for Student Involvement Emily Trask. “I thought I completely embarrassed myself by tearing up when explaining my personal mental wrestling with accessibility to all students,” Loui said. “I truly found the situation heartbreaking,” she continued. At the end of the meeting, Trask offered a sentence that slingshotted Loui’s career in a different and unexpected direction: “You have the heart of a student affairs professional.”

Coming from her position as Manager of Service and Civic Leadership in Extension and co-founding the Center for Global Volunteer Service at UC San Diego Extension where she planned eight international service immersion initiatives in six countries, the task to build these programs as National and International Community Service Program Manager was a natural progression. “I co-founded the Center for Global Volunteer Service which was aimed at providing education and realistic, hands-on experiences,” Loui told us. “One of our first courses was based in Tijuana focused on educational access. [I] was overwhelmed by the number of UC San Diego undergraduate students who were interested in joining,” she continued. “I learned that I loved working with undergraduate students so much that I volunteered my time serving as an advisor for a program for students called Alternative Breaks. I volunteered with Alternative Breaks for almost seven years before being hired as the advisor for the program!” Since uncovering and growing in her love for changemaker initiatives, Loui has developed a multitude of programs that have since impacted hundreds of UCSD students. These programs include the Alternative Breaks program, the Clinton Global Initiative University, the Social Innovation Fund, and other educational efforts and changemaker initiatives. 

Within Alternative Breaks, Loui’s programs include the Alternative Breaks Civic Engagement program which is an education and service-learning experience in Washington, D.C., focused on civic engagement. Students represent UC San Diego by lobbying California’s congresspeople in support of the DREAM Act and immerse themselves in the world of policy, advocacy, and social justice. Another Alternative Breaks program is the Alternative Breaks Public Health program which guides UC San Diego students to learn the multifaceted perspectives of medicine through visits to non-governmental organizations that promote alternative methods to western medicine. Students look at the social issues of access to care and the importance of religion and tourism in the Balinese culture, assist with administering preventative health check-ups to the local community with medical students from Bali, and lead workshops about exercise, nutrition, and hygiene to local youth. Other Alternative Breaks programs include the Alternative Breaks Sustainability program, the Homes for the Homeless program, and the School Reform program, all which consist of incredible hands-on opportunities.

When asked to walk us through a stand out story from her work, Loui took us along for the ride of one particular story that ended with the creation of yet another one of her community service programs. “When I was volunteering as an advisor with Alternative Breaks, I went on a service trip to the Dominican Republic with Student N who decided she didn’t like me. She would make fun of me both behind my back and to my face and continually said rude comments to me,” she explained. “I tried so hard to be nice to her but being kind almost made things worse. I couldn’t wait for that trip to end and to be out of the hostile environment,” she went on. “When I came back to the U.S., I was tempted to never talk to the student again- but decided that I didn’t want our story to end that way. I reached out to her a couple of times and never heard back,” Loui recounted. “Months later, after she had already graduated, she reached out to me because she was in the emergency room. I immediately dropped everything and stayed with her that night. She later told me that she called me because I never gave up on her, even when she tried her hardest to push me away.” After that night Loui and Student N took on a new dynamic. “She shared with me some of her struggles and I shared mine. She ended up overcoming many obstacles, volunteered with City Year and eventually became a 3rd grade teacher at a school in Washington, D.C.,” she noted. “Almost nine years after our service trip to the Dominican Republic, Student N and I collaborate each year where a group of UC San Diego students are penpals with her third grade students, offering encouragement to seek higher education and then visit her students over spring break.”

Another stand out story that Loui told us is that of the first cohort of Alternative Breaks Civic Engagement which was focused on lobbying for the DREAM Act for undocumented students to our congressional representatives in Washington D.C. “We were fortunate to receive a one-time grant to offer the trip for only $200, including flight, hotel, meals,” she said. “This low cost made the trip accessible to many students who would not have the opportunity to participate otherwise. It was an extremely meaningful trip, particularly for students who were undocumented and those who came from immigrant families.” Upon flying back to San Diego, Loui was impressed when the group empowered and advocated for each other by lobbying university administrators to fund the next cohort of Alternative Breaks Civic Engagement which paid off and ended with the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs funding the second cohort of the program. “It was so inspirational that the students would advocate for their peers. Unfortunately, the trip was cancelled due to COVID-19, but we look forward to offering it again in 2022,” she finished.

As our conversation continued, Loui brought up the efforts in place to ensure that these community service initiatives continue to do good and come from a genuine place for all people involved. “Community service demands one’s most precious resource: their time,” she pointed out. “I’ve learned that community service is actually quite complicated, particularly people’s relationship with community service.” While some volunteer their time for altruistic reasons such as to learn from the community or because they feel a sense of duty, others might be acting out of a desire for personal gain, commonly referred to as “performative activism,” in order to make themselves look good to others. Loui makes it a core goal to make every one of her programs as beneficial as possible to the receiving party. “We have to think critically about our role, our effect on the local community and economy, our long-term impact, conduct a thorough community assessment, an assessment of our skills and training, and more,” she said. In conclusion, “we also need to accept that sometimes the best way we can empower an international community is by not entering it to prevent inadvertently doing more harm than good.” 

Hearing about the lengthy collection of programs that Loui has set sail on creating and running begs for one question: what drives her to put in the massive amount of heart and work to make it all happen? As we came to learn, Loui is driven by seeing the drastic changes that can take place in the span of just a couple of generations, as seen in her own family. “I often think about how my grandmother was raised in China and had bounded feet because it was considered a form of beauty in her society and culture,” she told us. “As a result, she had difficulty walking more than a few minutes and now I’ve run marathons. In two generations, our lives are radically different due to the work of so many past changemakers who worked tirelessly to change our world because they were in love with the vision of a better future,” she explained. ”As a female person of color who is the daughter of immigrants, I’m standing on the shoulders of countless past giants so I have the privilege of being able to vote, seek higher education, work, own property, and so much more today. The best way I can honor their legacy is by serving my community and continuing their work towards an equitable future.”
Loui continues to be a pillar of support for UC San Diego students. In addition to her position with UCSD’s National and International Community Service Program, she is the License Holder for the student organization, TEDxUCSD, UC San Diego’s TEDx conference organizing team. Loui believes that the key to building a strong community is held in the power of strong individual relationships. In traditional Emily style, she left us with some parting advice. “A common problem is for UC San Diego students to feel like they have a lot of acquaintances but no or very few true friends,” she expressed. “I like to describe adult friendships as overlapping venn diagram circles. If you only know a person from one circle, i.e. from class, they will always feel like an acquaintance. However, if you know them from two circles, i.e. from class and from your student org, they will start to become more like a friend. If you know them from three circles, they start to feel like a good friend. If you want someone to develop from an acquaintance to a friend, I recommend inviting them to another circle in your life.”