In the month since the March 16 shootings at three Atlanta-area spas that left eight people dead, including six women of Asian descent, Asian and Asian American student groups at campuses across the country have renewed their activism and advocacy efforts and are demanding changes on their campuses.
The student activists are variously calling for the establishment of Asian American studies programs, expansion of mental health services for Asian American and Pacific Islander students, increased resources for cultural centers, improved processes for reporting hate and bias incidents, and more. The activism comes in the context of intense concerns about an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
At Duke University, Shania Khoo, a junior and vice president of the Asian Student Association, said she and fellow Asian students saw an opportunity to get their demands on the administration’s radar after Duke president Vincent Price issued a March 5 statement condemning violence against Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Khoo said the list of demands, which includes requests for expanded resources for ethnic studies and for investments in cultural centers to better meet the needs of students of color, “has been a very long time coming. This has been in the works for decades. A lot of the demands for Asian students at Duke date to 2002.”
Members of the Asian, Pacific Islander and Desi American (APIDA) student community at Michigan State University also issued a set of demands calling for changes in a range of areas, including resident adviser hiring and training procedures and protocols for reporting and responding to hate and bias incidents. The students also called for the representation of APIDA-identifying individuals in the counseling and career services centers, for the expansion of resources for undocumented students, and for more investments in APIDA student success initiatives, cultural programming and Asian and ethnic studies programs.
Shiksha Sneha, a senior at Michigan State and the chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for the Associated Students of MSU, said the Georgia attacks “really pushed a lot of our communities together to really work on these demands. It gave us the momentum and the space for the administration to come and listen to us.”
Sneha said the demands were presented at a virtual town hall attended by more than 300 people, including many administrators.
“It was a great way to highlight the experience of APIDA students on campus as well as show them what we need more of,” she said.
Michigan State president Samuel L. Stanley responded to the students in an April 1 email, in which he said administrators would “work collaboratively with you and others to further explore the feasibility of these recommendations and prioritize ones for potential immediate action.”
Stanley also said the university will hold a two-day summit in June “to seek further insight from students and our colleagues around ways that we can nurture a sense of belonging, ensure student care, and bolster related programmatic and policy considerations that support the APIDA, Asian and other underrepresented communities.”
At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, students are petitioning for the hiring of mental health providers who identify as Asian American or Pacific Islander on the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) staff. Currently, the petition states, there are no providers in the counseling center who identify as AAPI.
Bao-Tran Parker, a student in the medicine and master of public health programs who was part of a group of students who put together the petition, said it came about after the Atlanta shootings, when students of Asian backgrounds were looking for a space to grieve. Addressing the lack of representation of AAPI counselors at CAPS felt, she said, “like a really tangible thing we could do.”
“There are so many experiences that are unique to being Asian American in the United States, especially in the past year,” said Michelle Ikoma, another dual-degree medical and public health student who helped craft the petition. “I know for myself, I would be more comfortable sharing those experiences and my reactions and my emotions around those experiences with someone who may have had that shared experience.
“A lot of the conversation around race has centered on Black versus white. I think it’s really, really important to have those conversations, but even when I think about speaking to a provider of color who isn’t Asian American, I know I tend to minimize my experiences and say to myself, ‘It’s not as bad as someone else.’ I think I’d be much less prone to do that if I know the person sitting across from me understands the nuances — that anti-Asian racism still can be something that takes a lot of energy from you over time.”
Amy Johnson, vice chancellor for student affairs at UNC Chapel Hill, said in a written statement that administrators “understand that our Asian American-identifying students are struggling and have experienced harassment, discrimination, and racism.”
Johnson said the university is working to hire a counselor “who has experience working with the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, as well as an array of skills in supporting diverse students.”
Asian and Asian American students at Northeastern University in Boston have also called for “increased culturally appropriate mental health resources for minority students.” Other action items proposed in a letter signed by nearly 130 Northeastern student groups include “increased resources to APIDA communities and programs, especially to cultural centers and Asian American Studies” and “opportunities for minority student leaders to have consistent, transparent communication and plans of action with administrators, such that limitations may be understood and compromises which center students’ needs may be reached.”
Claire Blaufox, a junior at Northeastern and incoming co-chair of Northeastern’s Pan Asian American council, said students were frustrated by a March 17 statement from Northeastern president Joseph E. Aoun condemning anti-Asian violence.
“He wrote that he wants Northeastern to be a model for what society can be and that Northeastern is a community of action because words aren’t enough, but he didn’t provide any actionable steps or even inform students if there were plans being made,” Blaufox said. “It seemed fairly hypocritical, and that was the final straw for a lot of us. I suggested writing a letter, and it snowballed from there.”
At a subsequent panel discussion, Aoun said the students’ voices had been heard and would continue to be heard. He pledged that administrators would develop “a comprehensive action plan by the end of May to look at what the university can do better.”
Grace Pai, an assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Guttman Community College, analyzed colleges’ responses to the Atlanta shootings on Instagram and found that fewer colleges posted statements in response to the Atlanta shootings than had posted statements about George Floyd’s killing by police last summer. Her sample included colleges in the City University of New York system and the Ivy League.
Pai said it’s crucial for students to see statements of support from their colleges on a platform where they’re likely to actually encounter them.
“I have students right now who are fearful of going outside or their families are, amidst a pandemic where they’re already having decreased social interaction and decreased support from societal institutions,” she said. “Colleges are perhaps one of the few touchpoints they have with the larger society, and what we say really does matter.”
Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University and co-founder of the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center, which is tracking and analyzing bias and hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, said he is not surprised Asian American students are mobilizing on campuses right now.
“When I speak to my students, they’re concerned and anxious,” he said. “It makes sense that students are asking for cultural spaces and mental health support, because those are urgent issues arising. They’ve always been long-standing issues, but now they’re even more urgent during the pandemic.”
Jeung added that ethnic studies programs are another key need.
“We see that as one of the best long-term solutions to the issue of racism,” he said. “If people could understand the roots of racism against Asian Americans and develop some empathy, then perhaps we can reduce the hostility directed toward Asian Americans.”
At Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn., students launched a campaign on March 15, the day before the Atlanta shootings, calling on the university to establish an Asian American and Asian diaspora studies program. Vanderbilt is currently hiring for a three-year, non-tenure-track assistant professor position in the field, which a spokesman described as “an important step in an overall strategy to build interdisciplinary curricular efforts.”
“Students should not have to pay $70,000 a year to teach themselves their own history and identity,” said Iris Kim, a senior who founded the Vanderbilt Asian American Studies Initiative. “That has been the most heartbreaking thing to witness is when people leave this university with a bachelor’s degree and are still unable to recognize where they fit into our American history and system.”
George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., just approved an Asian American studies minor in response to student activism. More than 2,400 people signed a petition supporting the formation of the program last fall.
“I think they were open to doing this because of the student activism, because the students were saying, yes, there is really a demand for this, there’s a need for this,” said Patricia Chu, a professor of English who proposed the minor program along with Dana Tai Soon Burgess, a professor of dance.
“I’m really, really happy that it got approved, because it’s something that I focus on in my own academic work, but it’s also coming at this time where I think it’s more important than ever to understand what Asian American studies is and to understand the history of violence and racism that we have experienced in this country,” said Grace Bautista, a senior at George Washington who serves as historian for the Asian American Students Association.
“Most of my friends and I have had an experience this year where we’ve been harassed on the street for being Asian or experienced some kind of anti-Asian sentiment,” she said. “We got this minor, but also we are experiencing so much violence and hatred.”
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