Ashley Dao Wins Campus-Wide Leadership Award

3 min read

Musicology major Ashley Dao is one of three undergraduates who has won the student leadership award from the UCLA Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. She is the first student from The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music to receive the award.

But her biggest moment may have been born of failure.

“We were coming out of the pandemic, and had some momentum with establishing a first-generation student affinity group with the support of the dean, Eileen Strempel,” said Dao. “But after returning to in-person learning, we couldn’t keep the groups going.”

Dao and her fellow students tried a number of ways to get students to attend, no matter what she tried.

“I had to draw from my own experience,” said Dao. “I was studying, working, trying to pay for food and rent and gas, and I knew that it was hard to find time to go out and do things just for fun or camaraderie.”

Backstage at Schoenberg Hall with (from left to right) Peter Walsh, Jacob Collier, Ashley Dao, and Hannah Verduzco

So Dao helped establish a workshop for first generation and low income students that addressed the nuts and bolts of how to survive college. They discussed how to access campus resources to help pay for books, how to apply for food stamps, proven strategies for finding cheaper rents. That drew people to the meetings.

“It became a place to find resources, and a place where people felt safe.”

Dao’s leadership extends further still. She has served as president of the inaugural undergraduate advisory board. She has been a teaching fellow with the Music Partnership Program, where she taught piano and musicianship to elementary and middle-school students at partner programs. Dao worked to create culturally responsive lesson plans and engaging pedagogy.

Ashley Dao taking a selfie with her summer intensives students

She has turned the student-run undergraduate music-studies journal MUSE into a scholarly force. It not only provides extraordinary publication opportunities and editorial experience for talented undergraduates, under Dao’s leadership it has sought to make academic discourse more accessible to a broader audience.

This year, MUSE celebrates its 5-year anniversary and the third and final year of Dao’s tenure as editor-in-chief. And it is celebrating in great fashion.

“We are hosting a two-day conference that highlights the work of undergraduates and masters’ students all over the country,” said Dao. “And we are truly honored and excited to be inviting Mr. Corey Harris, a renowned blues and reggae musician and a MacArthur Fellow.”

MUSE Journal

One of the key traits of leadership is the ability to do hard work, a fact not often acknowledged in popular perceptions of the “charismatic” or “genius” leader. One of Dao’s most formidable traits is her understanding that hard work, and failure, are a fundamental part of becoming a successful leader, especially when the goal is to create something as formidable as a truly equitable, diverse, and inclusive environment.

“We can’t just sit around a table and talk about EDI,” said Dao. “Material conditions and real change has to be at the forefront of our minds. We have to enact tangible changes and create real benefits. And during the process, we need to always ask ourselves: are we actually helping people, or are we just checking boxes?”

Ashley Dao with graduate students of the UCLA Department of Musicology at the 2023 AMS Conference in Denver, CO

Dao’s leadership has already left a lasting legacy at the School of Music where it matters to her the most—helping students, especially those who face challenges. Her work has empowered others, and she likewise draws strength from her fellow students who have also put in the work to make the school a better place for everyone.  

“It’s an honor to be the first student from the School of Music named for this award,” said Dao. “I know I won’t be the last.”