January 5, 2022

By Bonnie Eissner

Kevin Nadal (Photo credit: Cara Metzger)

As a first-generation Filipino American growing up in Fremont, California, Kevin Nadal didn’t imagine going to graduate school, let alone becoming a professor. This month, at age 43, he has become one of the youngest distinguished professors at CUNY and the first Asian American and second person of color at John Jay College to hold the title. 

Nadal, who is also a professor of psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center, said that he is overjoyed by the promotion, which was approved by the CUNY Board of Trustees on October 25. “While I know I did certain things that got me here, I also know me getting here means that others will get here too,” he said, adding “I really want to recognize the collective spirit involved in this. It’s never just about me, but also about the family and mentors who supported me along the way so I could succeed. It’s also about how I can do my part to uplift all of the communities I belong to and make it better for future generations.”

Documenting How Microaggressions Harm People of Color

Nadal is the author or co-author of 10 books that address a range of issues involving Filipino American and LGBTQ psychology, mental health, and social justice. He has become especially well-known for his research on the detrimental effects of microaggressions, or common indignities that convey racial bias, on the mental and physical health of Asian Americans and other people of color. 

In one frequently cited article, “The Impact of Racial Microaggressions on Mental Health: Counseling Implications for People of Color,” Nadal and his co-authors report that their study of 506 individuals indicates that people who experience microaggressions are likely to suffer negative mental health consequences, such as depression, anxiety, and weak self-control. They urge counselors to make clients of color and members of other marginalized groups feel validated when they describe the microaggressions they encounter.  

In his recent book Queering Law and Order: LGBTQ Communities and the Criminal Justice System Nadal, who is openly gay, looks at how the criminal justice system has treated or mistreated LGBTQ individuals. In an interview with the Graduate Center, he said that the book also addresses “how people with multiple marginalized identities (such as LGBTQ people of color) have historically had an even harder time navigating” the U.S. justice systems, including the police, courts, and prisons. 

From Silently Enduring Racism and Homophobia to Addressing Them

Firsthand experiences with racial prejudice and homophobia have heightened Nadal’s empathy for people who, like him, are marginalized for more than one reason.   

Hostile encounters in school, he said, “made me understand what it meant to be mistreated for no other reason than my skin color, or my parents’ accents, or some of the food I brought to school.” He added, “Being treated differently racially and later in life being bullied because of my sexual orientation, I started to develop a passion for social justice and wanting to fight against any of these inequities." 

A high school psychology class piqued Nadal’s interest in human behavior and understanding why people feel and act certain ways. As an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, he majored in psychology, but, he said, “I didn't feel that there was a cultural narrative that matched mine.”  

A mentor encouraged him to apply to graduate school, and when he was accepted into a master’s program, he decided to research and write about the psychology and mental health experiences of Filipino Americans.  

Later, as a Ph.D. student at Columbia University, he was mentored by Professor Derald Wing Sue with whom he co-wrote papers on different types of microaggressions and their severe effects. Several of the articles that they wrote remain among Nadal’s most cited research. 

“From there, I saw this possibility of what I wanted to do,” Nadal said. “I wanted to be a professor who writes and does research and teaches and mentors students, especially young students of color, queer and trans students, people who don't traditionally have a lot of opportunities. I wanted to be the professor that I never had. I never had a Filipino American professor, so I wanted to be one.”

Nadal joined the John Jay College faculty as an assistant professor in 2008 and was appointed a professor at the Graduate Center in 2009. From 2014 to 2017, he also served as executive director of CLAGS, the Center for LGBTQ Studies, which is housed at the Graduate Center and is the oldest university-based LGBTQ research center in the U.S. Soon after that, in 2015, he became a full professor at John Jay. 

A Promotion Offers a New Platform

As the name implies, the distinguished professor title is reserved for faculty members who are leading scholars in their fields. Nadal applied for the position with the encouragement of John Jay Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Yi Li. 

Li said that he was struck not only by Nadal’s exceptional academic achievement but also by how well his research aligned with the mission of the college, where close to 80% of the students are students of color.

“My first reaction to the suggestion was, ‘How am I going to go for that? I don't know what that is,’ which is so reflective of when my professor in undergrad said, ‘You should go to grad school,’ and I said, ‘I don't know what that is,’” Nadal recalled.

After some research, though, he realized that his h-index, a ranking of the influence of a scholar’s publications, was the fourth highest in the psychology department, following those of the department’s three distinguished professors. 

“That's when I thought, ‘Yeah, I can go for this,’” he said.

CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez approved the title in July, and with the vote from the CUNY Board of Trustees, it is now official. 

Li emphasized that the promotion isn’t a mere culmination of achievement. “It is also clear to me that Kevin has not reached his peak yet,” he said. “He will continue to expand both his scholarly work and his influence.” 

Li noted too that he hopes that Nadal’s promotion will send a strong signal to all John Jay faculty and particularly faculty of color.

“When you're somebody who doesn't come from a privileged background, sometimes people just have to tell you what the possibilities are,” Nadal said. “Because if you don't even know that the possibility is there, you might not even try for it. I could have gone years or decades without ever thinking that I can go for a distinguished professor [role].” 

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