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Biana to spotlight rethinking resilience as Emory College class orator

By April Hunt | Emory Report | May 7, 2021

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Mikko Biana began working as a steward for community shortly after arriving at Emory. His address as class orator will reinforce that concept, while also reminding graduates they have the power to change narratives. Photo by Parth Mody 21C

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When Mikko Biana steps to the microphone as the 2021 Emory College class orator, he will ask his fellow graduates to rethink resilience.

Commencement is the ideal time for celebrating their shared capacity to adjust and carry on, even thrive, during a strange and tragic year. But Biana also wants to consider how elevating such perseverance masks the broken systems that rely on it.

“Resilience is an honorable character trait when we’re in circumstances we can’t control, but we should fight against any institutions or people who want to disadvantage us and make it the norm,” Biana says.

Tying that nuanced concept of resilience to Emory’s mission to serve humanity convinced a committee of graduating seniors, faculty and staff to select Biana from five finalists as the sole student speaker at the Emory College of Arts and Sciences’ Commencement ceremony.

His speech also will be a welcome reminder of campus for a conferral of degrees being held, due to pandemic restrictions, at the Georgia World Congress Center, says Jason Ciejka, an associate dean of the Office for Undergraduate Education who served on the selection committee.

“Mikko’s warm and charismatic personality and deep connections to Emory should prove helpful as he engages the Class of 2021 in a venue far removed from the Emory Quad,” Ciejka says.

Biana’s role as a steward for community began shortly after he arrived on campus. His parents moved from the Philippines to Florida five months before he was born, and coming from a working-class immigrant family, he was especially excited to be among a critical mass of Asian and Asian American students for the first time.

Yet he found he didn’t feel represented in many ways. He was subject to both the model minority myth — the stereotype that Asian Americans are universally smart and successful — and racist ideas about his intelligence and abilities as a Southeast Asian man with brown skin.

“In my head, I had a picture of what ‘Asian’ meant from my own experience and identity, and at Emory, it was totally different,” he says. “I thought about what that means for other students and knew I had to get involved.”

As a first-year student, Biana served as a tour guide in the Office of Undergraduate Admission to make sure he and others like him were visible to prospective students. He went on to become a champion for expanding the concept of diversity — to include racial and religious subgroups and first-generation and low-income students — as an Admissions Diversity Fellow.

Since his sophomore year, he has worked hands-on with counselors through campus visits, training new tour guides and, during the pandemic, serving on virtual admissions panels and Q&A sessions.

Biana also has worked for Residence Life for three years, including living in first-year housing this year as a resident advisor, in addition to his coursework as an international studies major.

The power to change narratives

All along, Biana was reflecting on his experiences and holding to a long-held plan for law school. Then, last fall, assistant history professor Chris Suh’s Asian American history class illuminated two new ideas.

One idea became the basis for his orator speech. The other was applying his perspective to the question of educational equity for diverse students. He starts his master’s degree in education, culture and society at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall, with the potential for law school following that study.

“What’s really striking about Mikko is his approach to everything as a process. He works to be patient with the development of his ideas,” Suh says.

“It’s so rare to have a student who is able to think with so much nuance,” Suh adds. “For him, it’s not just about how to make an argument with evidence. It’s about how you learn to understand other people, learn to be a part of society and take your opportunity to make a difference in life.”

Biana believes his classmates are similarly up for taking a critical eye to the ongoing public health crisis and racial reckoning.

His speech, he hopes, will elevate the work graduates did when a crucial historical moment coincided with their personal educational milestones — and what they can do to change the concept of resilience for those yet to come.

“It is important that the Class of 2021 discusses that a lot of loss incurred during the pandemic could have been prevented by challenging unjust systems,” Biana says. “Our systems have failed us, but wherever we are headed to, we have the power to change that narrative.”