Bar of yellow color

For the next generation

Vernard Lewis and Lisa Kala continue their efforts to create a diverse and inclusive university.

Vernard Lewis and Lisa Kala with their daughter Aikane Lewis and grandson Tahir. “We do what we do to pave the way for him, and for other young people of color,” says Lewis.

Photo by Mathew Burciaga.

To many at UC Berkeley and within Rausser College, Vernard Lewis and Lisa Kala need little introduction. Lewis (BS ’75 Agricultural Sciences; MS ’79, PhD ’89 Entomology) was the University’s first Black entomologist and a 26-year professor of Cooperative Extension. Kala (BA ’78 Psychology; PhD ’93 Education) has held administrative, research, and teaching positions at the Berkeley School of Education for over four decades. They’ve since retired, but their reputations as experts—Lewis as an urban entomologist and Kala as an educator—keep them professionally engaged.

“We’re still busy,” Kala says, “but now we have more control over how we spend our time.” That freedom allows them to focus on advancing initiatives that encourage the recruitment, retention, and advancement of students from underrepresented backgrounds. They say these efforts—which they support through Rausser College’s newly established Vernard Lewis and Lisa Kala Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Fund—are integral to developing new generations of diverse scholars.

By their own admission, Kala and Lewis could not have been more different when they met in 1975. Born and raised in San Francisco, Kala was a studious, straight-A student who accepted admission to Berkeley as a first-year psychology major. Lewis was born in Minnesota and spent seven years with his grandparents in Fresno, then moved to Oakland after high school to prove his counselor wrong. “My counselor was a white man that, during the civil rights era, told me I wasn’t good enough to go to any college,” Lewis says. “So, I made it my goal to go to the best university in the land.”

Despite their different paths, both were the first in their large families to go to college. The second oldest of seven, Kala often accompanied Lewis to dinners and other gatherings hosted by faculty in the College of Natural Resources. “Not only did they welcome Vernard, who was a student, they invited me and my younger brothers and sisters,” she adds. “No other College on campus was this welcoming.”

Making higher education accessible for first-generation students has been a career-long focus for both Lewis and Kala, who is half Filipino and half Native Hawaiian. Prior to retiring, Kala’s research focused on ways to facilitate academic achievement for underrepresented students. She advances that goal through continued involvement in the Academic Talent Development Program, which introduces thousands of K-12 students to UC Berkeley every summer and which she directed for many years.

Lewis, who considers himself living proof that affirmative action works, has been a longtime advocate of the importance of diversity. “When you walk outside, you don’t see two trees that look alike or two bugs that are the same,” he says. “Being a scientist teaches us that being different is good.” Lewis regularly works with College, University, and systemwide leaders on efforts to improve a sense of belonging for Black faculty and students.

The couple’s philanthropic contributions are already making an impact at Rausser College. Some of their fund’s money supported the HBCU Environmental Scholars for Change Program, which provides visiting undergraduates from Historically Black Colleges and Universities an opportunity to conduct research with Rausser College faculty. Additional contributions to the fund will be used to foster similar programs and initiatives.

“This College has taught and trained people of color who are now leading intellectuals and administrators around the world,” Lewis says. “If people came together to support these new programs and initiatives, we would be able to continue doing that.”

To contribute to diversity initiatives at Rausser College, please consider making a gift to the Lewis and Kala Fund