Asian American Studies Departments Could Be Transformative, Advocates Say

·9 min read

In the spring of 2021, Hannah Kang, a junior at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus, took a course on race and graphic-novel narratives. Kang, who is half Korean, said the class was life changing. “It made me realize how late I am to [engage] with this part of my identity,” she told Teen Vogue, admitting she wished more courses like this were available to her as a freshman.

“It was very emotionally, psychologically, jarring in a lot of ways, because I saw a lot of my experiences reflected in the stories,” she continued, “it was a lot of ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe this is the first time that I read something from a Korean author.’”

Kang has since joined the burgeoning movement for a fully fledged Asian American Studies department at Fordham. Advocates are pushing for more tenure-track positions for faculty of color in fields related to ethnic studies, enough Asian American courses to create a major in the subject, and a designated meeting space for students and professors to gather. 

Similar fights to formalize the study of the Asian American experience on campuses across the country picked up steam this spring amid a spike in anti-Asian hate crimes. Student advocates say they need scholarships and resources to understand the historical marginalization of Asian Americans in the U.S. to unpack instances of ongoing racism. Since Asian American history is barely mentioned in the K-12 system, students say college is a vital opportunity to learn about their own family histories in the classroom, some for the very first time.

At Fordham, the initiative began with a petition launched by english professor James Kim on March 22. In it, Kim called Fordham president Father Joseph McShane’s statements condemning anti-Asian racism “reassuring” but “not adequate” and proposed that a “fully supported, generously resourced Asian American Studies program” be implemented. Kim said the request was inspired by the school’s existing African American Studies department (established in 1969), and in solidarity with scholars who demand greater support for Indigenous Studies, Disability Studies, and Latinx Studies at Fordham. The petition ultimately garnered 1,410 signatures.

“I get so many students who are Asian or Asian American who are just starved for any courses, or any course content that addresses their life experiences, that teaches them about their histories, that helps them understand their own culture, and so forth,” Kim told Teen Vogue. “One of the most frequent comments that we got amongst students who signed [the] petition was that they spent years trying to find this kind of education, with limited success at best.”

A spokesperson from the university told Teen Vogue that discussions are already underway with academic deans and interested faculty, including Kim, about potentially approving an Asian American minor at Fordham, which would launch fall 2022. “Conversations regarding a major in the subject would likely follow after that,” a spokesperson said.

“There will be mistakes and setbacks, but Fordham is deeply committed to our community and to the plan for addressing racism and education for justice,” the spokesperson said, citing “significant financial and personnel” resources set aside for continuing diversity and inclusion work.

Kim and students like Kang also addressed the imperative for Asian American Studies at Fordham given its location in New York City, a major metropolitan center for Asian immigrants and Asian American history over the past two centuries, from Chinatown and Koreatown in Manhattan to the South Asian Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights.

During the pandemic, Kang said she and like-minded students began to have more conversations about how ethnically Asian students are regarded in the classroom. One concern brought up repeatedly was how professors often mix up Asian students, or mispronounced their names for the entire semester.

“It’s definitely reached a point, especially this past March and April, where a lot of us are starting to realize and recognize how ingrained this behavior is and how used to it we’ve gotten,” Kang told Teen Vogue. “And I definitely want to see, especially as an Asian student, a change among the general campus culture.”

After the Atlanta spa shootings, Kang heard secondhand from other students about the petition. In an effort to boost awareness and engagement, she created an Instagram infographic about why an Asian American studies department would be so significant. Soon, hundreds of students from both Fordham Lincoln Center and Rose Hill were sharing the post. Fordham’s United Student Governments for both Lincoln Center and Rose Hill campuses decided to unanimously support the initiatives outlined in Professor Kim’s petition.

During our interview, Kim said Fordham University is technically playing catch-up with its neighbors: NYU, Boston College, and CUNY schools have Asian American studies programs and initiatives.

Asian American studies began as a discipline more than 50 years ago at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University, when students protested for history courses outside of a Eurocentric point of view. After months of demonstrations, in 1969, both schools implemented ethnic studies programs.

Currently, at least 25 universities offer degrees in Asian American studies and many more have programs within existing departments. While the majority of these are concentrated on the West Coast, many well-regarded programs have been established throughout the country following years — sometimes even decades — of hard-fought campaigns.

Duke University launched its program in 2018 after 10 years of student activism. In 1995, a group of Northwestern University students went on a two-week hunger strike to pressure the administration into starting an Asian American Studies department. Northwestern began allowing students to declare majors in Asian American studies in the fall of 2016.

The anti-Asian rhetoric and violence provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic has elevated these ongoing conversations about the need for Asian American studies. Dartmouth University professor Eng-Beng Lim launched a petition in support of hiring tenure-track Asian American scholars to develop a program of its own, among several other proposed measures, building upon a previous decade of campus advocacy. After three years of petitioning and collaboration between faculty and student groups, George Washington University also announced this March that the school would begin offering an Asian American studies minor.

Students and professors say the fight for more ethnic studies courses and departments at predominantly white institutions (PWIs) comes with its own specific challenges. Lack of widespread student support, professors of color in the humanities not being prioritized for tenure-track positions, budget cuts, austerity measures, and restrictive public demonstration policies (which Kim considers “oppressive”) can all hamper student campaigns.

Some of these advocates say that universities also tend to wait students activists out until they graduate, allowing student movements to lose momentum — despite an abundance of evidence-based research that proves these resources are worth the investment. Studies have found better student engagement and classroom performance at schools that provide culturally competent curriculum and campus resources, such as multicultural centers.

Students who support these initiatives say they want more courses to examine the racial inequities in American history. For many, the quest for these programs is as academic as it is personal.

Angela Nguyen, a rising sophomore at Georgetown University, is a member of the Asian-Pacific Islander Leadership Forum (APILF), a student group advocating for an Asian American Studies department at the school.

“I recognize that for a lot of my parents’ and grandparents’ [lives], all they knew was war,” Nguyen, who is Vietnamese and Khmer, told Teen Vogue. “I’ve always wanted to take a course on the Vietnam War, because I wanted to understand what was going on. But I know that the school won’t do it justice. And an Asian American program is probably the only place where I can learn about how the war affected my family and why I am here today.”

Amber Nguyen, a member of the Asian-Pacific Islander Leadership Forum (APILF) at Georgetown University, helped lead a summit this past spring, entitled Georgetown Asian American Studies Summit (GAASS), to raise awareness about implementing a program at Georgetown as well as an Asian American House. Since she’s a rising senior, Nguyen said it was also an event to recruit underclassmen to carry APILF’s advocacy forward.

The creation of an Asian American studies department “would validate the lived experiences of Asian American students on campus and just show that our history is worth being told,” she continued.

Nguyen became passionate about advocating for a department after taking a class that assigned readings about the children of Vietnamese refugees. “That was something that I resonated with so much that I started sobbing in public [when] I was doing my readings,” she said. “I [basically] ran to my professor’s office hours and had this therapy session with her.” Nguyen said that memory in particular stands out and is the reason why she wants other students from similar backgrounds to understand “their place in the world.” 

The professors and students who spoke to Teen Vogue expressed a frustration with working alongside administrators who say they are committed to diversity, but, in the students’ view, make few tangible changes to the curriculum or campus culture.

“We’ve seen our inboxes flooded with a lot of kind of generic messages from the administration in solidarity, saying that they see us they hear us [but] well-intentioned statements in response to traumatic events aren’t enough,” Nguyen said.

Asked for comment, a Georgetown spokesperson told Teen Vogue the university “is extremely supportive of exploring course options that share our diversity, equity, and inclusion values” and noted that the core curriculum requires all students to take two “Engaging Diversity” classes. In February 2021, the school also launched a Racial Justice Institute, which is intended “as a place to seed and inspire the next generation of scholars and leaders addressing the vestiges of enslavement and well-being of Black, Indigenous, and people of color.”

For the next school year, student leaders are not backing down. Both Amber Nguyen and Hannah Kang said they hope to build upon the momentum from this past year going into the fall semester with like-minded students, and demand greater support for ethnic studies in general at their respective schools.

“I am definitely more optimistic as a senior nowadays than I was when I was a freshman,” Kang said, mentioning support from Fordham’s Black, Latinx, and Caribbean student groups. “I guess we can kind of keep to ourselves [about] issues [that] are affecting us in some ways, but unless we vocalize that, and if we don’t create community, then we’re not gonna see the outcomes that we want.”

Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: A Timeline of the History of Anti-Asian Discrimination in the United States

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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue