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Aunchalee PalmquistBeing of mixed heritage and having an unusual first name, Aunchalee Palmquist can’t remember a time when she wasn’t “othered” in one way or another. The daughter of a Thai mother who immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 21 and an Italian Irish father whose grandparents came here in the early 1900s, Aunchalee’s exposure to multiple cultures was inherent in her family dynamic. In her first decade, she and her family (which also includes a younger brother and an older half-brother who lives in Thailand) moved from Philadelphia to Florida to Saudi Arabia, then back to Florida before settling in Kentucky, where she remained until she left for college.

This global experience was both a window to the world and a reminder that she didn’t quite fit into a neatly identifiable “box.” “The first thing people would ask me when I was small was ‘What are you?’ or ‘Where are you from?’ or ‘Are you mixed?’ I also navigated the world as a daughter of a Thai immigrant who spoke broken English, had only a fourth-grade education and grew up extremely poor. I saw how people talked down to her, treated her, made jokes at her expense and insulted her,” she recalls.

Many people Aunchalee met had no idea she was Thai, nor likely even knew where to find Thailand on a map. By the time she got to the University of Louisville in 1990 (where she would earn a BA in anthropology), she began to feel as though everyone around her suffered from “colorblindness,” which only exacerbated her struggle to find ways to be seen, even among her own friends. “Colorblindness just meant that everything that made me unique was being erased rather than celebrated,” she says.

It wasn’t until she went to graduate school at the University of Hawai’i (where she earned an MA in Anthropology and a PhD in 2006) that Aunchalee felt a sense of belonging. “It was incredibly powerful and transformational to be in a place where most people looked like me and had similar experiences as me, my family and my mother,” she says. There, she found community and began to learn deeply from friends, peers and colleagues about the legacies of racism and colonialism in Hawaii and elsewhere in the Pacific, and present-day movements for sovereignty and decolonization.

These sorts of experiences make indelible marks on one’s psyche and sense of self. For Aunchalee, it strengthened her resolve to focus on improving the lives of those who have been similarly marginalized. In her roles as Assistant Professor in the Maternal, Child and Family department, DEI teacher and lactation consultant in the Mary Rose Tully Training Initiative in the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute (CGBI) and Equity Training Specialist for CGBI’s RISE: Lactation Training Model, Aunchalee sheds light on disparities experienced by breastfeeding mothers in BIPOC and other minority communities. Colleagues lauded her as someone who consistently advocates for diversity, equity, and inclusion through teaching and mentoring, focusing on providing students with the tools to understand historical and structural influences on health inequities, ethical engagement in community-based collaborative research to address health inequities, and creating learning environments where diverse voices and experiences are respected and heard.

Aunchalee simply credits her devotion to DEI work in this field as her duty. “I think at the most fundamental level, I try to show up for my students as authentically and fully as I can,” she says. “Students who come to public health, particularly if they are from an underrepresented group or are an international student from the Global South, do so because they believe in health as a human right and want to be part of the work to make this a reality. I try to embrace this aspect of their professional development and learning, and nurture it.”

Growing up, what were your expectations regarding higher education?

I wasn’t a great student. I enjoyed learning, but I always tested poorly on standardized tests. I was often bored in school and then anxious about tests. I thought I was going to be a professional musician or maybe an actor. I started college as a piano major, but I discovered an anthropology class and was fascinated. I’ve been doing anthropology ever since.

What drew you to anthropology?

There were a lot of things about anthropology that were intellectually really satisfying, especially being able to mix together human biological sciences with sociocultural studies. I loved that intersection of biology and culture. But I think initially what drew me to anthropology was the possibility that this field could give me some tools to better understand myself and my experiences with racism and discrimination. It was my desire to understand cultural diversity and the root causes of social injustice that led me to pursue undergraduate studies in anthropology. My strong interest in human biology and medicine drew me to medical anthropology. I wrote a senior honors thesis on HIV/AIDS, commercial sex work, and gender inequities in Thailand.

Aunchalee Palmquist doing fieldwork
Aunchalee Palmquist doing fieldwork

What challenges did you face as a woman in this field…more specifically, as an Asian American woman?

Unlearning and reckoning. Anthropology, in part, was where I learned about the importance of positionality in research, community-engaged and collaborative research, ethics, justice and advocacy. I had the immense privilege to be mentored by an African American anthropologist, Dr. Yvonne Jones, as an undergraduate at the University of Louisville. And then during graduate studies, I was able to learn from Native Hawaiian and other Pasifika scholars, activists and students. It was clear that even with all of the richness of the discipline, and the possibilities for people like me to make a contribution to the field, that there was – and still is – deep and critical work that needs to happen for the field as a whole to address the many ways it perpetuates and sustains racism and systems of oppression. I think it is very challenging for students of color in this field to find their place and do the work that needs to be done with the lack of representation that there is across the discipline. I have only had a few anthropology professors or mentors of color, for example, and none who were Southeast Asian or Thai.

Did you have a mentor? If so, how did he/she/they guide you?

My doctoral studies mentor, Nina Etkin, passed away a few years after I graduated. She was a wonderful mentor and probably was the only professor during my graduate studies to tell me that she believed I had what it took to succeed in academia. Because I respected her so much, having her confidence in me and her support made all the difference. These days, I would say that the primary mentoring I receive is through my peers who are also in academia, especially other scholars of color.

What led you to make the leap from general anthropology to medical anthropology?

I always had an interest in medicine and human biology. I took a medical anthropology course and just knew that medical anthropology was where I wanted to spend my time thinking, reading and researching.

What was the campus climate like when you came to UNC in 2017…and how did you navigate it?

I am fortunate to be part of the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute. It is really here with my colleagues who share an interest in breastfeeding/chestfeeding research, lactation education and practice that I have found a welcome and nurturing home. Other early-career faculty in the MCH department have been a constant source of peer support, and I also have support from faculty within Gillings Global, Inclusive Excellence and Student Affairs who have helped me to navigate UNC.

You bring a racial equity and reproductive justice lens to multiple roles [in addition to those at UNC, Aunchalee is co-lead of the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee COVID-19 Infant and Young Child Feeding Constellation, an invited member of the NICHD sponsored Breastmilk Ecology: Genesis of Infant Nutrition project and lead qualitative investigator for the Maternal Telehealth Access Project]. What drives you to focus specifically on these interests?

I have a voice. I am fortunate to have access to these spaces and projects, and I try to center health equity in all of this work. I try to listen and amplify the messages from colleagues working on the ground in communities about what is needed to address health inequities. I strive to be a trusted steward of community relationships and collaborations, and really always centering the needs of those whose voices are left out of many conversations.

What do you do during your off time? Any special interests?

I am married and have three kids and a dog. In the “before” times, I used to do triathlon and long-distance running, swimming and hiking. I love cooking, traveling and being with my family.

Of which personal accomplishments (at UNC and/or at home) are you most proud?

I’m proud of surviving the pandemic and keeping my family safe and healthy.

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