Nikki Chun on Trusting Your Instincts and Finding Your Unique Path

So many people view life as one-dimensional. Tradition dictates that each person must rank their passions, ultimately letting those deemed as “less important” fade away in choosing a career. This all-or-nothing view isn’t how Nikki Chun sees life. 

Originally from Honolulu, Nikki Chun is a first-generation college student now in her 17th year of working in college admissions. She began her journey at the University of Miami, continued at Rice University and is currently the Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the California Institute of Technology. In recent years, Caltech has committed itself  to increasing the enrollment of students from historically underrepresented backgrounds in STEM. This is evidenced by the fact that the majority of leadership roles on campus are currently held by women. Nikki Chun is a part of this change.

As the Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Nikki is at the forefront of the crusade to amplify the voices of women in STEM. Because STEM is a historically male-dominated field, people often overlook the vital contributions of women that are necessary for the overall advancement of STEM. She recognizes that for the demographic domination in STEM fields to change, people in leadership roles must expect a change. But Nikki doesn’t just expect a change — she fights for change. She views each application not merely as a name or an anonymous list of achievements, but as a student with a voice and a passion who could find success at Caltech. She refuses to get sucked into stereotypes, as she realizes that increasing enrollment of students from all backgrounds makes Caltech a place where each student is represented and valued, not simply as a percentage, but as a leader, an achiever and a change-maker.

But what about STEM-minded women who don’t attend Caltech? Nikki Chun fights for them too. While she passionately pursues positive development at Caltech, she is a visionary for women in STEM everywhere. Nikki says, “I very much embraced that I do this work for the entirety of the landscape and not just the school that I work for. To me, it’s not necessarily that a student needs to connect with where I am … What matters to me is that wherever a student lands is a place that is going to bring out the best in them.” She doesn’t view her position as simply a way to advertise and promote Caltech, but as an opportunity to support students everywhere, no matter what school they choose to attend. Nikki’s passion for seeing growth and development in the students she meets has largely contributed to her success.

She attributes much of this success to a simple mantra: trust your instincts. Nikki describes that in Hawaiian culture, there’s a belief that one’s ancestors serve as a guide through those instinctive feelings, and she was raised to listen to and trust that voice. She says, “Even in the moments when that’s the only voice that is saying that thing, I listen to it.” It’s evident from Nikki’s professional success that those instinctive feelings are truly worth listening to, even when that voice is surrounded by opposing opinions and naysayers. She advises young women interested in STEM to courageously follow their passions and not let challenges stand in the way. 

Sometimes those instinctive voices may seem to contradict each other, but Nikki encourages young females to embrace those competing voices. She contends that the best way to encourage females to pursue STEM fields is to widen the assumptions surrounding STEM and embrace the interdisciplinary nature of STEM fields early on. The dominant narrative dictates that you must stay in one space or another and that exploring multiple fields is a weakness. Nikki Chun, however, sees interdisciplinary exploration as a strength. She believes that creative writers, artists, and dancers can be involved in STEM. She encourages leaders in STEM fields to help young females understand how their passions can be interconnected, as opposed to being forced to choose one over the other. If you’re interested in political science, there’s a place for you in STEM. If you’re interested in the arts, there’s a place for you in STEM. She maintains that students living in multiple “worlds” should not only be given a place in STEM but should be seen as important and vital to the advancement of STEM. Nikki poses a question: “How interdisciplinary do you want your experience to be?” 

Nikki Chun reflects on her early life experiences as foundations for where she is today. She describes, “There are words around things today that were not as readily available to someone like me growing up. When I heard the word feminist, I pictured someone that was radical and unpopular… and admittedly it wasn’t something that I even thought to explore for myself, so I am now.” She contends that there’s danger in the kind of negative narratives and connotations being shared. In relation to STEM, females often get locked into those narratives because those around them are constantly trying to influence their decisions according to flawed social dictates. Nikki asks, “Where would I be if feminism had been explained to me in the way that I’m embracing it now?” As she’s progressed in her career, Nikki has begun to embrace feminism as a way to help students through their unique journeys and experiences. 

There’s no doubt that Nikki Chun is a gamechanger. She’s not afraid to transform the narrative, demolish the stereotypes, and fight for change. In Nikki Chun’s world, your path can be whatever you want it to be. In Nikki Chun’s world, there is no limit to what a woman in STEM can achieve when she pursues all her passions and listens to the voice inside. Nikki says, “I hope that those out there who want to pursue it [STEM] … know that there are people out there that are ready to support you and ready to nurture that because your voice is one that needs to be at the forefront.”

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