When Rolita Flores Ezeonu speaks out about the future, she addresses events of the recent past. She recalls images of George Floyd with a police officer’s knee on his neck, the air choked out of him as he begged for mercy.
Floyd’s May 2020 murder sparked protests and difficult conversations across the country, but it also renewed and strengthened Ezeonu’s lifelong fight for equity and social justice in higher education.
“I’m raising kids who identify as Black”—her husband is from Nigeria—“as well as Asian Pacific Islanders,” Ezeonu says. “That really has informed my work personally and professionally.”
Ezeonu (’92, ’94 MA Comm.) has worked her way up to vice president for instruction at Green River College in Auburn. The events of 2020, including the widespread protests following Floyd’s killing, furthered work she had been fighting for her entire career. Her mission: eliminating systemic inequities and barriers, and creating culturally responsive curriculum, instruction, and programming for students.
In September 2022 that work was recognized when Ezeonu was named a 2022–2023 Aspen Rising Presidents Fellow by the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program. The honor allows Ezeonu to continue building on her mission for equity in education.
“I look forward to being in community with this awesome cohort, to continued self-growth and reflection, and learning from the Aspen teachers, mentors, and community,” says Ezeonu, who appreciates the opportunity to grow and learn.
She is the eldest child of two Filipino immigrants who ensured she understood the benefits of higher education. “My father was a Sakada,” she says with a touch of pride, “one of the first wave of single Filipino men who immigrated to Hawaii in the 1930s. He was 15 years old when he arrived and worked on a plantation, cutting sugarcane, pineapples, and such for 10 cents a day. My mother had once dreamed of a college education, but took a job in a chicken factory, plucking feathers and prepping (poultry) for sale.”
It was hard labor with limited opportunities, so her parents put a huge emphasis on Ezeonu obtaining a college education. When she got into university, her parents were thrilled. But, for her, the excitement really started when she began studying communication and realized how it could serve as a conduit for bettering not just her life but the lives of others being denied equitable opportunities.
“I went from the rolling waves of Hawaii to the rolling fields of Pullman,” she says. “It was quite a contrast. In those days, it wasn’t very diverse at WSU. I doubt that students of color were even 10 percent of the population.”
Ezeonu began to look and think more seriously about her identity, sense of justice, and growing love of communication. She would sit in a cubicle in the WSU library, watching historical film reels of civil rights leaders and studying them in depth.
“I poured myself into studying the works of the Reverend Dr. (Martin Luther) King and other icons of social justice—not just what they said, but how they said it. That research, that work at WSU, really formed my young adulthood. It helped me in thinking about myself as an Asian American Pacific Islander, a person of color, a student, and as myself.”
After finishing two degrees at WSU, Ezeonu taught communication at community colleges in Seattle and Hawaii. As a Fulbright-Hays Scholar, she traveled to South Africa and Namibia to learn about post-apartheid reconciliation. She was also a visiting professor in Nigeria. After receiving a doctorate in education from Seattle University, she was appointed dean of instruction for transfer and precollege education at Highline College in Des Moines, where she later served as interim vice president of academic affairs.
In 2018, Ezeonu came to Green River College, where she continues to ask a question that not only defines her as a person but speaks to her legacy as an educator.
“As we move towards equity, as we think about anti-racism, as we think about anti-Blackness, as we think about the deaths of our Black and Brown sisters and brothers, what does that mean for institutions of higher education?”