PSD Spotlight: Tess San Juan

May 24, 2022

Tess San Juan
Tess San Juan

The PSD May Spotlight is Tess San Juan, senior grants and contracts administrator in the Local Business Center. Tess was born in the Philippines and immigrated to the US when she was nine years old. She grew up in a small Chicago southwest suburb called Oak Forest and is coming up on her 20th year at UChicago.

What do you enjoy about being a part of the PSD community?

I’ve been in the PSD for 14 out of 19 years working at The University of Chicago, and the PSD has allowed me to maintain a “work hard, play hard” attitude. I get down to business when needed, but I also like to unwind and show my goofy side during potlucks and holiday parties (pre-COVID). The PSD has become my home away from home, and I consider my long-time peers as family. I like to think of myself as the fun aunt—mostly, but not quite, mature.

Tell us a bit about you.

I’m a passionate and energetic individual who comes off quiet at first but warms up when engaged in conversations. I played various individual and team sports in my youth and played 20 years of women’s and co-ed volleyball in college intramural and park district leagues. I earned a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology, with a concentration in Exercise Physiology. I’m a proud momma of three four-legged kids: Purrseus (black/white tabby), Digzzy (black shepherd mix), and Gunner (white mini goldendoodle). I absolutely love to sing, and I was doing carpool karaoke on my daily commute to work before it became a big thing.

Who inspires you?

My mom and my maternal grandmother. They are two very strong women in their own rights.  My mom is soft-spoken, and my grandmother was vocal.  I’m a Gemini, so I can be both.

What is the most interesting thing that you are working on right now?

At work, I’m trying to put together a cheat-sheet for my fellow grants and contracts administrators, so they have an easier time finding information on various University functions.

In my personal life, my friends have asked me to learn a few songs by Stevie Nicks, Heart, and Janis Joplin, which are artists that weren’t in my usual playlist. I’m enjoying the challenge to sing songs out of my comfort zone while also developing new vocal techniques.

What does diversity and inclusion mean to you?

My personal experience as a Filipino woman vastly differs from other women of color. I encountered racial microaggressions in school for being a minority, yet I didn’t qualify for “minority” scholarships. I felt this same invisibility when engaging in deep conversations about race. I’ve been told on different occasions “you’re not black” and “you’re not white.” Additionally, gender microaggressions that women face on a regular basis often feel magnified for me because Asian women are stereotypically quiet and obedient. When I was asked to co-facilitate D&I PSD staff working groups back in 2019, I knew there was a lot of work to do to break down such barriers.

Diversity is acknowledging and celebrating the differences in race, cultural backgrounds, values, beliefs, and sexual orientation. Inclusion is making each person feel accepted as they are.

D&I is important to me, because as an immigrant, I felt significantly pressured to assimilate in school. Classmates would laugh or scoff when I mispronounced words. Nowadays, people assume that I was born here because I speak fluently and with an American accent. The D&I initiatives in recent years have allowed me to be proud of my Filipino heritage. My history books only mentioned American presence in the Philippines during World War II, but through social media, I learned that Filipinos were also a part of American history. I didn’t know that the first documented presence of Filipinos in the United States dates back to October 1587. I never knew of the Filipino fishermen that established a settlement in Louisiana in 1763, and that Filipino-American farmworkers significantly contributed to the American labor movement in 1960’s. Although not as well-known or celebrated as other heritage months, the United States Congress recognized October as Filipino American History Month in 2009.

Who had the most influence on you growing up?

My family. We were functionally dysfunctional, but we all turned out mostly all right. I think. Respecting your elders is big in the Filipino culture, and I recall calling out my dad one time for setting a bad example. His response was that I should be following good examples and discarding the bad. Although it may seem hypocritical, it’s actually sound advice that empowers me to discern right from wrong and promotes self-growth.

What three words best describe you?

Quirky, versatile, dependable.

If they made a movie about your life, what genre would it be and who would play you?

Probably a musical or a Disney animated film. Filipinos are under-represented in the film industry, so my choices are limited. If it were a musical, I would be played by Hailee Steinfeld. She’s of Filipino descent and has starred in Pitch Perfect 2, Bumblebee (Transformers movie), and The Edge of Seventeen. If it were a Disney movie, my singing voice would be by Filipina singer/actress Lea Salonga, who was the singing voice for both Jasmin (from Aladdin) and Mulan.

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