By Malika Burieva
Kenneth Cervantes-Dionisio’s journey from being mocked for his Asian identity in high school to being the founder of Asian Students Intercultural Alliance (ASIA), a new intercultural alliance club for Asian students at Adelphi University, is an inspiring tale of determination and resilience. Despite facing obstacles, he never gave up on his passion for promoting cultural diversity and inclusivity. Now, as president of ASIA, Cervantes-Dionisio is leading the change toward a brighter, more interconnected future for all.
ASIA, a club inclusive of all countries in the five regions of Asia, is known for its motto, “many cultures, one continent.” Cervantes-Dionisio argues that the cultures and customs of East Asia are different from those of South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and so on. He believes that integrating Asian countries can bring harmony amongst the Asian students of Adelphi and differentiate cultures from others instead of stereotyping them.
Cervantes-Dionisio said, “We get to learn about each other and our different backgrounds. Just the idea of being integrated is what started this because you can’t put a definition on being Asian.”
At Adelphi, one of his first friends was from Indonesia—another country in Southeast Asia. They bonded over the limited representation that on-campus clubs have for Southeast Asians. That led to his creation of ASIA, which meets every Wednesday from 1 to 2 pm at Levermore Hall, Room 305.
Both of Cervantes-Dionisio’s parents were born in the Philippines and they met in Woodside, Queens, known as “Little Manila” for its large Filipino population. Cervantes-Dionisio was born in Forest Hills, NY and lived in Richmond Hill as a toddler. His family moved to Roosevelt, Long Island during his developmental years.
Growing up, he tried to distance himself from his Filipino ethnicity due to constant teasing about his heritage from his schoolmates. As a result, his identity crisis and mental health were at a low. It grew worse when during the Covid pandemic the movement of #StopAsianHate began and he experienced racial slurs and stereotyping for his Asian identity.
Being a first-generation Filipino-American, Cervantes-Dionisio feels too Filipino to be American and too American to be Filipino. He said it was a gratifying experience to visit the Philippines in 2015. He experienced indefinite culture shock, bringing him closer to his ties.
Now as a 21-year-old, Cervantes-Dionisio has learned to embrace his heritage. He enjoys visiting Filipino grills to feel connected with his ethnicity. He loves traditional Filipino food such as pancit (a rice noodle dish with shrimp sauce and boiled eggs), lumpia shanghai (egg rolls filled with pork) and sisig (sizzling pork on a hot plate).
Cervantes-Dionisio is learning to write in the old Philippine script of the pre-Spanish colonization period known as Baybayin to further connect with the history of his culture. He stresses the importance of having a support system when someone is attempting to get in touch with their culture and the importance of a Filipino having two last names.
“It’s a Filipino thing,” Cervantes-Dionisio said, “because of Spanish colonization, Filipino culture adapts to many Spanish traditions. On my birth certificate, my last name is Dionisio. In the Philippines, we don’t adhere to the American concept of middle names. My parents wanted my middle name to be my mother’s maiden name which is Cervantes. They wanted to put Kenneth Cervantes-Dionisio. My mom has a hyphenated last name, but I don’t. It was very confusing when I had to apply to schools.”
Cervantes-Dionisio is a junior and first-generation American. Aside from being president of ASIA, he is part of the Society of East Asian Students (SEAS), Black Students United (BSU), Adelphi Math Organization (AMO), Commuter Student Organization (CSO) as a commuter assistant (CA) and is a Peer Assistant Leader (PAL).
“Kennie brought up the idea of ASIA during the end of summer in PAL training,” said Jenna Steinberg, a sophomore psychology major and public relations manager of ASIA, “I thought it was a phenomenal idea because I loved how he was inclusive of all the regions of Asia. I’m very excited to be a part of ASIA and see how this new club goes.”
Tiffany Martino, assistant director at the Center for Student and Community Engagement, said, “In the time I've gotten to work with Kennie, I've learned just how passionate he is about Adelphi and his classmates. As the president of ASIA, Kennie’s dedication to helping the community grow and thrive is apparent. He has shown a high level of self-motivation and determination for this organization, and I am excited to see the organization continue to thrive.”
Cervantes-Dionisio believes being Asian is a unique experience, and he is passionate about growing the organization by creating a support system. He hopes that when he graduates that the club will continue to serve the needs of Adelphi students for years to come.
The club recently held a Nowruz Persian New Year Tabling Event in March, and they will sponsor Geography Trivia Night on Wednesday, April 19 from 7-8:30 pm. As a long-term goal for the club, he hopes to win a Brown and Gold Award in May to show how far the club has come.
Cervantes-Dionisio said, “It makes me feel more secure with who I am seeing my flag in the UC and seeing other Filipinos on campus. It’s been a long uphill battle with learning how to love myself and love my culture.”