AU Asian student coalition reflects on efforts for a more inclusive Asian Studies program as it transforms into Asia, Pacific and Diaspora Studies
As Critical Race, Gender & Sexuality Studies expanded into a department, students pushed for change
This story is the first in a series of articles on the Asian Studies program and the history of Asian student activists working toward more inclusive API courses.
Since the inception of American University’s Asian Studies program in 2013, student activists within the Asian community have called for and worked toward more inclusive and diasporic coursework within the program.
Now, the program is shifting toward becoming the Asia, Pacific, and Diaspora Studies program.
Kiran Waqar was one of those students who viewed the courses offered in the Asian Studies program as non-inclusive. A junior double majoring in sociology and literature with a concentration in transcultural studies, she wasn’t interested in taking the courses because she believed they were catering to the interests of white students.
“Looking at them, they seemed very East Asian and very white-centric, like people with an interest in Asia for business,” Waqar said. “Part of AU as an enterprise … It’s a private university and wants people to register for classes. And they’re advertising to white students because they thought they were the ones who would be most interested. And their audience wasn't Asian students.”
Junior Aqsa Rashid, originally a School of International Service major who hoped to make her regional focus in South Asia, switched to sociology after finding the coursework options limiting.
“I never thought the classes were marketed for us,” she said. “I had to research it, I didn’t hear much about it.”
Junior Clarissa Cheung, who majors in sociology and literature with a concentration in transcultural studies, said this has been an ongoing problem. Cheung is also the current president of the Asian American Student Union, and was the Advocacy Chair last year, leading outreach to other organizations and creating a space for AAPI student activism.
“For me, it wasn’t one moment, it was just an ongoing thing ever since I’ve been here,” she said. “And I guess it was because I started an Advocacy Committee in AASU last year. I think that’s what enabled me a little bit more to have a space to come together and do cross-coalitional work that hadn't really been a thing before.”
In her first semester working at AU in 2013, students sought out Lily Wong, an associate professor of Literature and Critical Race, Gender & Culture Studies, as the Asian American Student Union began to form. She said she was excited to take part in the building process for the organization, and since getting more involved, she’s seen students pushing for more diasporic courses.
“The desire to have an Asian American Studies program has been here for as long as I’ve been here,” Wong said. “I think it didn’t seem to be a possibility until very recently, partially because of faculty hiring, and partially because of the general climate of our world, and partially because the CRGC only this year became a department. So we didn’t really have that kind of institutional space and resources and support for this to actually materialize into reality until right now.”
Decolonizing the curriculum: How students got involved in bureaucracy
The most recent effort began in spring 2020. The week before all AU students were sent home due to the coronavirus pandemic, Cheung planned a meeting with multiple Asian student leaders in AASU, the South Asian Student Association and the Muslim Student Association. They had started brainstorming events to foster more collaboration, as Cheung had reached out to the organizations.
“I was on one of my desk shifts and so I was behind the desk of McDowell and they were just pulling up chairs in front of the desk. People were walking into the residence hall and they were like ‘What is going on?’” Cheung said.
This one moment sparked the biggest combined effort that Asian student groups have created towards more inclusive AAPI courses at AU. The four main student leaders of the coalition were juniors Cheung, Rashid, Waqar and Summia Mahmud.
“She really did that, homie really did some community building the week before COVID sent us all home,” Rashid said. “Once we went all home, we were all like, ‘Oh, we have free time, and this is still important to us,’ so we just started meeting about it with each other and that's started the process of a million meetings for the next couple of months.”
In virtual meetings with the Asian Studies faculty, the students brought up concerns about the program. They told the faculty that they didn’t believe the program’s audience was Asian students and called for there to be more languages offered for Asian students that were not currently represented. According to Cheung, they took issue with the language on the website used to promote the program and thought the aesthetics favored only learning about East Asia. They also thought only promoting China, Japan and Korea as study abroad options to learn about foreign policy marketed the program to white students.
They met with Park, Wong and the CRGC head Eileen Findlay privately as well. Park emphasized the importance of students raising their voices for what they want to see out of the program. Even though Wong was on maternity leave and sabbatical, she continued to advocate for the coalition.
“I try, even when I’m on leave, to be present for AASU and to be present for the students because we don’t have many folks to turn to on campus,” Wong said. “And that really speaks to the need for more hiring so this very important work — and work that I am completely 100% committed to — is not just resting on just a few people on campus.”
After a certain point, Rashid said that faculty members were asking the students to do “way too much work.” The students looked into professors at AU and outside of the school that the program could hire and passed out surveys with their student organizations to see what kind of classes students wanted to take.
According to Cheung, the results were very telling. After sharing surveys with AASU, SASA and MSA members, they received 60-70 responses. 100 percent of those surveyed were in favor of having a full API Studies department at AU.
The process to change things after those results was grueling, according to the group. In a meeting with College of Arts and Sciences Dean Peter Starr, Mahmud told him that as students, the work they were doing was unpaid. According to Mahmud, the response they received was “Yeah, we wish we could, but instead we’ll just say thank you.”
Rashid recounted how they repeatedly were told to, “wait until Professor Wong gets back” before they could get anything done. When Wong came back from maternity leave, she helped with moving forward on efforts, such as changing the website.
“It was kind of sad to see that all the labor was being put on one person who was being tokenized for it,” Rashid said. “I’m in her department, and I’m sure … she knows that she’s being used for that labor. So it’s just kind of an unfair process.”
As a whole, Waqar said that the process revealed how bureaucratic AU is and how it can be used to stifle change.
“One thing we kept hearing throughout the whole process was like, ‘Oh, staff needs to hear this,’ ‘Leadership needs to hear this,’ ‘Student voices,’ ‘Student voices,’ ‘Student voices,’ but we had a survey with 70 people,” Waqar said. “It felt like even when students were trying to speak, there were still all these institutional barriers.”
Cheung said that there are faculty who support them but for this specific initiative, they found a lack of support. Through it all, CRGC head Findlay has been helpful, the group and Wong said.
Wong said that the students’ activism has been a blessing, as it motivates faculty to keep doing the work.
“But also, it reminds us that we’re doing this work for a purpose and for a reason and that the students are ready for it,” she said. “Because it is institutional building work. I really do hope that there will be more resources funneled and then there will be more long-term faculty hired to share the weight, because this is unsustainable, that only a few people are carrying the weight of building these amazing spaces for the students.”
The student leaders also met with AU alumni who fought for this change in the past. Rashid said it was hard to know what previous student efforts were like since once students graduate, AU doesn’t continue the work.
“It’s an effort that a lot of students have tried to organize around in the past, it's obviously important to a lot of people, but after trying to go through bureaucracy, people get tired and they graduate and then it's just not one big organized effort,” Rashid said.
However, Waqar hopes this work continues and gains even more momentum despite increased burnout during the pandemic, especially for students and faculty of color.
“That also means rethinking the way we think about research and what gets funded and ways of approaching knowledge,” Waqar said.
Beyond the classroom: API self-care and upcoming events
For now, all the students can do is wait, as their work with the program itself is currently done for the moment. Cheung said that Wong told them “It’s on the University’s hands, everything that needs to be done is on them.”
“I think that really just shows the ways in which the bureaucracy and the institutional barriers exist because the four of us were able to become homies, organize events, create friendships [and] create relationships, do all these things and we're just doing that on our own,” Waqar said.
Rashid hopes that future students who want to see change in Asian Studies will be able to ask for that change without feeling alone.
“I just hope that like after we graduate, it’s sustained,” Rashid said. “Through our student orgs, something that we want to emphasize like if it's something that they want to take up, they know people that they can talk to and it's just not lost.”
But there is more that came out of this initiative on a student community level. MSA and AASU co-sponsored a “Self Care As Resistance” event with Professor Sybil Williams as a speaker last year, which led to more collaboration between the groups. AASU, SASA and MSA have shared each other’s work more over the past year.
“It’s become a thing between us to uplift each other’s content and work together,” Rashid said. “Homies really be there for each other across institutional barriers and create those kinds of third spaces for ourselves.”
According to Rashid, they began an “API self-care group” among themselves in April 2020. They’ve met every week since they first began. Three out of the four of them are living together next year, after becoming friends over Zoom through this experience.
“I think it also speaks a lot to how movement work goes hand in hand with really caring community building and you can’t really have one without the other,” Cheung said.
As the semester ended, AASU, SASA and MSA worked on their final events. MSA has an iftar-and-go event every Friday until May 7 for Jummah; SASA hosted a Bollywood trivia night on April 16; and AASU has provided resources for contextualizing anti-Asian violence and highlighted various events, including a panel with Wong and professor Grace Kyungwon Hong of UCLA. Cheung directed students to each organization’s Instagram accounts to find out more.