A Conversation with Yasna Vismale

Hannah Teoh Outreach Manager

Meet Yasna Vismale— a student, researcher, professional model, published author, and composer— all at 21 years old. Yasna is currently an undergraduate student studying Religion at Columbia University where she also does research on Sustainable Development. She has also published a book, Werk Your Net, and recently composed a film score for a documentary. I was able to speak to Yasna over the weekend to discuss her work, academia, and diversity.

For Yasna, studying religion is one of the most interesting ways to study human behavior, belief patterns, and understanding intentionality. “Especially with any kind of solution, I believe implementing it is always going to be harder than coming up with it. It’s not because we can’t do it, it’s because we have to convince people to learn why it might be important for them.” She adds that,

“[i]t’s important for people in any kind of leadership role to understand people, and this means understanding their backgrounds and cultures. And a lot of the time, religion is tied to that.” 

Yasna is of Japanese and Afro-Caribbean descent and she believes that her mixed heritage has helped her form a foundation in being a polymath. “As someone who loves learning and loves understanding the connection between how things are, I believe that we often think of the world as black and white. We might think, “If you’re doing one thing, how can it possibly relate to another?” She continues,

“My passion is being able to bridge that gap.”

“I think being biracial has allowed me to look into invisible bridges. Being Japanese and Afro-Caribbean, one person might think that there are no cultural ties between them or that there are no similarities, but it does! And I literally would not exist if there wasn’t.” Being able to understand how things come together has helped Yasna in translating her passion for cultivating compassion and empathy using various mediums to relay stories. “I’m always looking at the big picture and trying to figure out how we can communicate what matters and not get distracted from that,” she said. 

Her cultural background has also shaped the way she perceived academia. She shared that as someone from a low-income background, she initially planned to enter the Economics-Wall Street-investment banker route, traditionally known to guarantee financial success. This would soon change, as she came to the realization that it was not the only way to find success. In her pursuit of finding what she loves and also being able to achieve her main priority of providing for her family, she’s switched from studying Economics, to Sociology, to Philosophy, and finally, Religion. She notes, though, that this was possible because of the privilege she has as someone attending an Ivy League institution. “Regardless of what I study, I do have the privilege of going to an elite institution which allows me to connect with a lot of incredible alumni who can help me with a job.” 

“I think diversity is inherent to a person.”

“As individuals, we have diversity in our experiences simply because we grew up in different environments.” Yasna explained when asked about her experiences with diversity in academia, “But when it comes down to actually looking at diversity in an institutional setting, we have to stop labelling people as diverse; we have to understand that it is a relational word.” She emphasizes that diversity is still sometimes tokenized and more effort should be invested into fostering meaningful diversity, especially in PWIs. “There’s a little bit of diversity, but let’s be real, we have to do better. It’s always important to note that no matter how diverse you believe an institution to be, there’s always going to be a subgroup of people that are inherently ignored. That’s not to downplay the work and energy that a lot of institutions put into making their environments more diverse. But it is to critique and say that it’s not enough. We have to go beyond ethnic diversity and cultural diversity, but also look into economic diversity, gender diversity, religious diversity, sexuality diversity; the list goes on. We have to compare and see what kind of identities are actually being represented in our physical spaces.” 

On how academic institutions can engage in more diversity and inclusion, Yasna shared: “I don’t think the effort is matching the need. And that also comes from institutions simply not knowing how to get in touch with diverse communities or communities that are not already represented.” She offered some insight into how institutions should promote meaningful inclusion. “I think one way institutions can do better is to create more community spaces that are not just academia-oriented. Being able to cultivate diverse spaces would also mean making events more accessible. I think it also means to market and target the right audiences in the right places. It’s also important to facilitate discourse between cultural clubs, and it’s not just like the Japanese Students Alliance talking to the Korean Students Alliance, but having the Japanese Students Alliance creating partnerships with the Black Students Alliance or the Jewish Students Alliance.” One thing Yasna wants institutions to be more mindful of is financial aid and the access it grants people.

“Many low-income students are also students of color or from marginalized backgrounds. If we are able to equalize that playing field, I feel like that could create a lot more cross-cultural relationships.”

During the pandemic, Yasna published her book Werk Your Net, which discusses invisible barriers in professional settings that sets back people from marginalized backgrounds and how to empower those from non-traditional backgrounds to navigate the world of networking. She spoke about how this personal project gave her a sense of purpose during the pandemic. “During the pandemic, I started losing meaning in the context of my classes since it was all virtual. As much as I love learning, it just wasn’t the same environment that was giving me the meaningful interactions that I needed. This book really saved me from losing a lot of meaning in my life.” 

She also saw this as an opportunity to dissect the issue of people that shared a similar background as her not being able to access the same resources as her. “It motivated me to tackle the issue of not having students that looked like me, in the spaces that I often occupy because I learned how to network and how to talk to different people at an early age. It was honestly a survival mechanism for me to get those opportunities.” She added that “The only difference between me and a lot of people from a similar background is that I had people in my life who mentored me and gave me a sense of direction, I had access to resources that allowed me to expand my mindset.”

“There’s plenty of people who are just as smart, or smarter; it’s just a matter of information.”

And you might be wondering, how does Yasna manage to accomplish all these impressive feats? What drives her, she shared, is that she doesn’t want to regret not doing something. “The main priority is to take care of my family. But also, based on the position I’m in and the opportunities I’ve had, I need to give it back in some way, shape, or form. And just seeing so much inequity happening in society, I want to see change. I want to see people who look like me be able to access more opportunities.” She gushed about her mother as one of her biggest motivators. “She always pushed me to do things I was interested in. She wanted me to commit to whatever I did.” 

Just as Yasna is passionate about understanding connections, everything she loves and is passionate about all connects to each other. “My love for learning and my love for understanding how things are connected has made me realize that regardless of what kind of career path I take, I want to make an impact in my community. I want to do something positive.”


Fun Rapid-Fire Questions!

Favorite Asian dish:

That’s a hard question… I do like Oden, which is a Japanese winter dish. My aunt makes them really well. Other than that, I do like a nice grilled mackerel with some rice and sauce.

Favorite place to visit:

I think my favorite place is definitely Vietnam. The food is incredible, I don’t think I’ve ever had any better broth. And the people are really kind. 

On-repeat song:

Paradise by Tender. He is a really good Japanese artist. I’ve been listening to a lot of Japanese alt rock music. But my favorite composer of all time is Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Yasna Vismale is a polymath: as the author of “Werk Your Net”, a composer, a professional model, researcher, and undergraduate at Columbia University. Growing up between Seattle and New York, receiving grants to travel to various corners of the world, and being of Japanese and Afro-Caribbean descent, Yasna considers herself an international citizen. 

Through her ability to convey stories throughout various mediums and to different audiences, Yasna hopes to use her platform to inform, educate, and inspire those around her to think critically about their ethical practices, expand their sense of compassion, and deepen their level of self-awareness and happiness to improve the quality of the human condition.

Yasna has been featured by McKinsey, “Best of Prezi,” LinkedIn, Moevir, Columbia Sports, is a Forbes under 30 scholar, Global Kraft Scholar, Coca Cola Scholar, Questbridge Scholar, and serves as a board member to the Columbia Alumni Association and Second Century of the Core to restructure Columbia’s curriculum.

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