A recent letter written by third-year Commerce student Sanjeev Kumar, fourth-year College student Katie Zhang, fourth-year College student Lauren Xue and fourth-year College student Serena Wood addresses concerns about a lack of representation of Asian Americans in University leadership as well as the need for a space for Asian students on Grounds.
Fighting for the creation of a space
The letter, entitled “A Case for the Creation of an Asian/Asian American Student Center,” lists five primary goals that an Asian and Asian American center would fulfill — providing a space for Asian students to relax and study; contributing to the University’s goal of supporting diverse communities by focusing on the Asian community; providing educational, social and emotional resources to Asian students; promoting community within the Asian population and raising awareness for problems facing the Asian community.
Fifteen organizations signed the letter, including Student Council, Asian Student Union, the Minority Rights Coalition, Asian Leaders Council and the University Guide Service. Kumar explained the group worked over the summer to complete the letter and finished it Sept. 3.
Asian Americans currently make up 16.16 percent of undergraduate students at the University and 7.78 percent of graduate students. Less than 10 percent of College of Arts and Sciences faculty are Asian or Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. A report published by the ALC in 2018 showed that while 14 percent of students in the College identified as Asian, Pacific Islander and Desi-American, only 8.46 percent of all faculty reflected this identity. Similarly, in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, 18.72 percent of students identified as APIDA compared to only 9.86 percent of faculty.
University students have long been fighting for the creation of a center for Asian students on Grounds — the ASU first began pushing for a center as well as an Asian-American Studies major in 1995, Kumar said.
Other student centers on Grounds include the Multicultural Student Center, the Interfaith Student Center, the Latinx Student Center and the LGBTQ Center, all located in Newcomb Hall. Most recently, Newcomb’s basement became home to the Veteran Student Center which opened Sept. 22.
A broad vision for the center
Kumar said that his eventual dream for the space includes the construction of a separate building with a communal space for leisurely activities as well as another space within the new construction where students can access academic resources about Asian American Studies.
Kumar also envisions the center having office space for a number of faculty.
In an interview with The Cavalier Daily, Kumar emphasized that the “Asian” label encompasses a number of different ethnicities and he wants to ensure that the center makes room for this diversity.
“It's something to be very cognizant about when making a space — that it does [include] the identities of these individuals,” Kumar said, “Being able to not be focused on one specific ethnicity, but ensure that there's a balance of the representation, a balance in terms of what issues are talked about, a balance of the types of care and support that are there.”
In 2020, the ASU conducted and published a demographic report which surveyed 890 APIDA students in an attempt to correct model-minority myths by presenting a “data-rich portrait” of the diverse APIDA student population. Of the respondents, 458 identified as East Asian American. South Asian and South East Asian students also accounted for 276 and 176 respondents, respectively — a small number identified as Central Asian or Native Hawaiian. The ethnicity section of the report counted the 3.7 percent of students who identified with multiple ethnicities in each category that they indicated.
In the long process of crafting the letter, the writers reached out to other universities that have established Asian and Asian American centers to gather inspiration and information about how to draft the proposal, such as Virginia Tech, whose Asian Cultural Engagement Center can accommodate up to 30 people, features an HDTV for presentations and hosts a library with resources relating to Asian American studies. The vision for the proposed center at the University includes many similar features, such as the communal student space and space for books and student resources.
Sophia Liao, president of Third Year Council and third-year Commerce student, explained the center is necessary for a sense of community and belonging among Asian and Asian American students, especially during times of fear or anger.
Liao experienced a keen sense of isolation following the Atlanta shooting in March, when eight people were killed, six of whom were women of Asian descent. Liao said she found a strong community at a vigil held by student organizers days after the tragic shooting.
“It had never felt so viscerally important to me that we need a space where I can see people like me or people who share my experience [who] I can connect with,” Liao said. “I wish we could extend that sense of belonging to a physical space.”
The letter proposes that the center be temporarily housed in the basement of Newcomb until a more permanent space is constructed.
In University administration, only one administrative department — the academic and administrative leadership of the Darden School of Business — has more than one Asian faculty member, while most have none. Across 13 departments in the College of Arts & Sciences, only 39 faculty are of Asian background — major offices of University administration and leadership like the Office of the President and the Office of the Dean of Students have no Asian American representation.
Considering this small number, the letter states that an Asian and Asian American student center would support the needs of Asian students by having a director who could represent their community and needs to University administration.
Providing support for student-run programming
Katie Zhang, fourth-year College student and vice-president of the ASU, is looking forward to the installation of faculty who can provide support for the projects and programs that have long been student-run. According to Zhang, Asian student organizations such as ASU have been taking on tasks of supporting students and creating events for the community. Only one faculty member — Sylvia Chong, associate professor of English and associate chair of American Studies — is in charge of the Asian and Pacific American Studies minor.
Chong was one of two professors hired to kick-start the minor after it was approved in 2004 — she is the only professor who remained, and has run the program for 14 years by herself.
Zhang said that the responsibility placed on students to support other students is a heavy burden to bear without institutional support.
“We see a lot of the Asian Student Union, historically, taking on tasks that should be done by admin, and we're tired of that,” Zhang said. “That's why we need this new space, because it shouldn't be on students to support students.”
Zhang put in significant effort to create a virtual community event focusing on the sexualization and fetishization of Asian Women. She felt as though the Women’s Center at the University should have hosted an event in response to the Atlanta shooting, which she said had an important link to the sexualization of Asian American women.
The total budget for the project — including the construction of the center, hiring of personnel and financing of the magazine — for five years comes to just under $3 million, as calculated by the letter’s authors.
The money would cover the hiring of multiple new faculty members, including a director and assistant director who would be responsible for advocating on behalf of the Asian community and maintaining the center. The director and assistant director would also serve as associate professors teaching classes on Asian American Studies. In addition to new faculty, the budget includes support for new and existing Asian student organizations, guest speakers and construction and decorating costs for the space.
Three student interns would also be hired to work in the center and assist center coordinators with day-to-day responsibilities and maintaining publication and production of the magazine.
Liao spoke on the importance of having professionals to support the Asian community in addition to a physical space.
“A space can be developed and found[ed], there are new buildings popping up every day, but making sure that there are people in the program that are paid to support our community — I would love to see that,” Liao said.
Current University resources for Asian students include the Asian Pacific American Leadership Training Institute, which is a student-facilitated 10-week program for students to learn about leadership skills in the context of their own cultural identity. The proposed center would open a paid position to maintain programs for Asian students including the APALTI and “ensure a sense of permanence,” according to the report.
In addition to APALTI, the center would maintain the Women’s Asian American Leadership Initiative, an eight week discussion-based leadership program for Asian American women student at the University, the annual celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and the Peer Advising Family Network, which provides transitional support to first year and transfer students in the Asian American community. All of these are currently run under the Multicultural Student Services with APAHM also run by the ASU. The center would also provide a biannual magazine for the University’s Asian community.
Serena Wood, fourth-year College student and co-chair of the Asian Leaders Council, said she envisions the center as a safe space where students can learn together. The ALC, Wood said, has always pushed to support cooperation and collaboration with member organizations, and she hopes to see the center continue this goal of collaboration.
“Being able to have that commonality of the experience we've had in America is really important,” Wood said. “And I think that's something that unites our community in a sense.”
For Wood, this common experience stems from a deracialization of Asian Americans who are considered as a group to have achieved a proximity to whiteness, thereby erasing the specific struggles and demands of Asian Americans.
“[Asian Americans] were used somewhat as an example of success and, therefore, kind of deracialized and not viewed as a minority that's necessarily discriminated against,” Wood said, “But that doesn't mean that the Asian American experience has been fair in any case. A lot of times that can hurt and isolate Asian Americans.”
Zhang echoed this sentiment, adding the Asian American community contains a large amount of diversity in income, English language proficiency and citizenship, but that many people assume that the Asian American community is a successful monolith equipped with generational wealth. Zhang said these assumptions cause the struggles faced by Asian Americans to become invisible.
Ilyas Saltani, vice-chair for community development and residential inclusion of Housing and Residence Life and fourth-year College student, expressed the importance of giving diverse communities a voice through having a center.
“I think appreciating and celebrating each respective identity's uniqueness while also celebrating them as a collective, is what that space would serve,” Saltani said.
The future of an Asian/Asian American Student Center
Interim Dean of Students Julie Caruccio said the University “appreciates the substantive work demonstrated by students” in drafting the report and advocating for the center in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily. University leadership met with the students involved last spring, she said. More recently, Caruccio and Vicki Gist, associate dean of students and director of Multicultural Student Services, met again with the students.
“As we explained at that time, we are currently developing a process to consider student-generated space use proposals,” Caruccio said. “We expect to have that process ready for implementation by the end of this academic year. The students in this group will be among those included in that process.”
The next steps outlined in the proposal call for the University to approve and begin the construction of a center for Asian Student Center as soon as possible and begin using open space in the Newcomb basement in the meantime. The letter also calls for hiring the necessary faculty as soon as possible and having them transition into the official space once it is created.
Wood said a more cohesive idea of the physical space of the Asian American student center will come when the University and the organizers have a better idea of where the center would be located.
Reflecting on the work he has done in drafting this proposal, Kumar expressed hope for future generations of Asian American students on Grounds.
“It doesn't seem realistic for an Asian American student center to be formed during my time at the University,” Kumar said. “[But I know] if we get the University to sign off and then the constructions going we can get a center built [so] that future students at this University will feel like they have a home here or feel like the University sees them and acknowledges their presence.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article inaccurately reported that the Asian Student Center has been pushing for the creation of an Asian studies major as opposed to an Asian-American studies major. The article has been updated to reflect this change.