When her husband was studying architecture at Penn School of Design in the early 1990s, Kusum Soin spent nights sitting on the benches in front of Van Pelt, bringing her children to play next to the Button.
“I used to watch all these [students] with their backpacks, so compassionate, so intelligent, and I used to sit there and think — can I become part of this community? How can I become part of this community? All my friends who are here have Ph.D.s, master's [degrees], and I only have a diploma in architecture,” Soin said.
Having worked in the Penn community for more than 18 years, Soin retired from her position as office coordinator at the Pan-Asian American Community House on May 10. Soin, well-loved by staff and students alike, who cheerfully called out her name when they saw her in the hallways of ARCH, was "the face of PAACH," 2009 College graduate Monica Chen said.
“While one might expect the director of the organization to be its most recognizable representative, I would say Kusum has definitely been the face of PAACH for nearly two decades,” Chen said.
On any day of the week, you might have found Soin sitting at her desk organizing budget and expense work or organizing events such as the annual Asian Pacific American Heritage Week. When PAACH moved to the ground floor of the ARCH in Spring 2014, Soin purposely oriented her desk to face the current PAACH common area so that she could easily welcome visitors in when they arrived. At her retirement party on April 23, more than 60 students, staff, and alumni held paper cutouts of Soin's face to honor her legacy at PAACH.
Over the past two decades, Soin attributed her interactions with students as what made her work at PAACH an “unforgettable journey.” Yet, students said it's the love and care she has shown them that has made a lasting impact at Penn.
College senior Rudmila Rashid, a frequent PAACH visitor, said Soin always offered her words of encouragement, especially as she was going through the “disheartening and emotionally taxing” medical school application process this past year.
“Every single time she’d be like ‘Rudmila, I know you, you know you. You have to have faith in yourself. You have to believe in your capabilities,’” Rashid said.
College senior Annie Batsaikhan, who worked as a PAACH intern last year, said as a way to comfort her for missing her parents, Soin offered to cook Batsaikhan's favorite Thai curry. Batsaikhan's mother cooks the dish for her at home.
"No one has offered that to me," Batsaikhan said. "No faculty [member] at Penn has been like 'I'll cook for you and I'll make this for you.'"
"She has this way of keeping students grounded in a way that a lot of other administrators don’t, and I think it’s because in her position, she interacts with students daily from the time she walks into PAACH and the time she leaves PAACH,” College junior and Asian Pacific Student Coalition Chair Kamal Gill said.
Growing up, Soin lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment in India. Her apartment was cozied by a large, bustling family: Soin lived with her parents, three younger siblings, aunt, and cousin. In addition to being the only source of income for her extended family, Soin’s father volunteered his time to tutor schoolchildren in math in the evenings and donated money to a local blind school every month. Soin said her dad was the first person to teach her the importance of community service.
“He always mentioned to us always look to people who only get one meal a day and help them,” Soin said.
In 1980, Kusum and her husband, Devinder, moved to Kuwait, where her two daughters were born. Her daughters would go on to attend Penn, one studying biology and the other studying fine arts. Soin's family made plans to fly to America in September 1990 after Devinder was accepted to Penn's School of Design to pursue a master's degree in architecture.
Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 complicated their plans. Food was rationed, banks and airports were closed, and Soin’s family had no money or means to leave the country. A month later, Soin's family took a taxi to Baghdad, then relocated to Amman, Jordan, and was able to fly to West Philadelphia.
In the United States, Soin held a part time job at a grocery store and sold jewelry at local flea markets, the main source of income for her family while Devinder was in school. She began volunteering at her children's school and became chair of the Home and School Association there. Soin also helped immigrants who lacked proficiency in English gain citizenship as chair of the Association of Indians in America.
After encouragement from Greenfield Intercultural Center Director Valerie De Cruz, Soin attended PAACH's opening in November 2000 and then applied for the office coordinator position. When Soin first joined PAACH in January 2001, she was shy and could not bring herself to talk to many students.
“I was afraid to talk to students because of my accent and [thought], 'If I say something, maybe they will laugh at me,'” Soin said.
Soin slowly broke through her shell and decided interacting with students was key to creating the PAACH community.
“First thing I said, I’m going to make a community here,” Soin said. “I will greet everyone who will come. Ask them how their morning was, what did you do last night — like these small talks. Students also started opening up to me.”
Soin never thought she would retire from PAACH because of the joy students brought her. She smiled as she recounted how students were willing to teach her how to use Microsoft Excel, Word, and social media and show her the latest YouTube videos. After considering retirement for the past five years, Soin now looks forward to making pottery as she has done for the last seven years and volunteer for the benefit of first-generation students and schools in Philadelphia.
PAACH Director Peter Van Do calls Soin “the PAACH mom” and said it has always been a pleasure working with her during his seven years at PAACH.
Soin will be recognized at the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs' APA Heritage Month Reception on May 28 for her service in the Asian American Pacific Islander community. She was nominated by two members of the commission including Asian American Studies Program Associate Director Fariha Khan.
“She’s been an incredible support to me on a personal level and I always seek her counsel on a variety of things, like how to manage particular issues with my own kids applying to college," Khan said. "She is always willing to listen not in terms of work but also personally. I really value her.”
Soin hopes to use what she learned from her time at PAACH to help other communities in need. For the time being, she remembers the students she met over the past two decades.
“Students brought so much brightness and love to me,” she said. “That’s unforgettable. How many times I will give it to them, that’s not enough.”
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