As a freshman, Sofia Kim struggled to find a strong Asian community at AU. As a sophomore, she met the then-president of the Asian American Student Union (AASU), Janny Jang, who encouraged Kim to join the group through her philosophy of “just come!”
Now in her junior year, Kim is president of AASU. She knows that she wants to do more to help any Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) individual seeking a community at AU.
Kim’s experience isn’t a singular one. Several Asian-American students who spoke to The Eagle said they have faced challenges in finding a strong Asian community on campus.
“It’s hard to find a space on campus where you feel fully represented,” Kim said. “A lot of us come from predominantly white towns back home, and we come to college seeking an Asian community, but we don’t have this in a classroom setting, our professors are mainly white and social groups surrounding interests aren’t the same.”
Enter the new AASU Family Program, the first of its kind for any Asian organization at AU, according to AASU treasurer Richard Trinh.
Within this program, executive board members and upperclassmen serve in the role of “bigs” and take on “littles,” typically underclassmen, to build a community that is intentionally for Asian-American students on campus and recognizes the unique struggles they face.
Michael Wong, a former vice president of AASU, had the initial idea to begin the program last fall. Kim, senior adviser Jared Buto and vice president Nicolle San Jose decided to develop it further this semester. As the new president this spring, Kim wanted AASU to have more social events rather than only panel discussions to create more of a family environment.
Although Kim was initially hesitant about the specific wording of “bigs” and “littles” due to its association with Greek life, she said she sees this program as an adaptation of that. Trinh, who is a big to freshmen Umar Mahmood and Nohea Shozen, is also a part of Greek life at AU as a brother in the fraternity Sigma Chi.
Trinh said he wants to share his knowledge about how to navigate life at AU with his littles.
“Coming in to AU, I didn’t fully know my identity as an Asian-American because I grew up in a predominantly Caucasian environment and wasn’t involved in Asian stuff back home,” Trinh said. “Appreciating where my family came from by being part of AASU and being a big in AASU, it’s like being a big brother.”
Shozen and Mahmood have enjoyed having Trinh as their big because he has taken the time to ensure that they feel welcomed, they said. One of their favorite memories with Trinh was their big/little reveal. The reveal was one of the many events AASU has done with the big/little pairs.
Other events included a spicy ramen challenge, and smaller, personal activities that they planned as a group. For example, Trinh took Mahmood and Shozen out to a Washington Wizards basketball game and dim sum.
“I got to hang out and know my AASU fam,” Mahmood said. “It was a great experience as basketball games are lit, and I had never seen a live game before. Moreover, it allowed us an opportunity to explore the city in a different way.”
Some of these individual activities allowed bigs to show littles aspects of the Asian experience in D.C. that they may not have discovered otherwise. Freshman James Kwon enjoyed going to Kung Fu Tea with his big Lamanh Le and his fellow little, Eve Yuthasastrkosol.
“It was reminiscent of home,” Kwon said. “[Le] taught me the ropes, shown me the good Asian places to be at, shown me her friends and said we’re all here to support you and be here for you. It has reached and exceeded my expectations.”
Bigs are representative of a larger community that can make students feel welcome on campus, Kim said.
“We recognize there are specific benefits to having another Asian mentor who has experienced life in AU and D.C. longer, to help you with the transition to college,” Kim said. “If you feel like you can’t have those conversations about identity and race, you can have that with your big.”
Le, a junior, said she thinks it’s the right time for her to serve as a mentor to underclassmen, now that she has learned how AU’s cultural groups work.
“It’s interesting to understand the dynamics of Asian-American identity and Asian identity, and see nuances between both identities and how it manifests on campus,” Le said. “I think it’s so important to have a good mentor/mentee program, especially as Asian-Americans, and to create a community that is conscious and aware about issues beyond our campus and how to bring about action domestically, to plant the seeds for the future.”
Several of the littles said that being part of the big/little program provided them with the home they’d been looking for at AU.
“At first, it was so different from back home in Thailand,” Yuthasastrkosol said. “I was hoping to gain connection, and I obviously gained more than that -- I found friends and family. I know that when I walk out of the classroom, I’ll run into someone I know. It’s a home away from home.”
Shozen said that AASU is one of the few spaces on campus that celebrates her heritage.
“It is often hard to find a welcoming community at AU without the aid of clubs and Greek life. This is especially true for Asian students,” Shozen said. “The lack of Asian food and culture on campus often creates a disconnect for Asian students. Luckily, AASU successfully constructs a sense of home by providing Asian culture and food at meetings and events.”
Kim hopes that the family program will continue to flourish in the coming years and help further develop the AAPI community at AU.
“It’s not just a bunch of Asians in space together, but Asians who care about Asians, who know about resources and that their experiences matter,” she said. “The response has been super encouraging and we’re so thankful.”