It’s About Time You Took An Asian American Studies Class

Asian American students put their lives on the line to be included in college curricula. Isn’t that a story you want to hear?

By Sylvia Regan

Now that it’s finally truly fall, thousands of students have returned to college campuses across the country. How many of them will be taking an Asian American Studies class this semester?

The Association for Asian American Studies lists 30 colleges and universities in their directory of Asian American Studies programs. Many of these, like that at my own Northwestern University, are minor-only or ad-hoc programs. The directory includes an additional 20 schools with Asian American Studies programs within other departments, and 18 that offer Asian American Studies classes.

70 schools out of the roughly 3,000 four-year institutions in the U.S. offer classes on Asian American Studies.

That’s it.

As a student at Northwestern University, I’m lucky to attend a school that has a program with a rich history and a proposal in place to expand to a major-program. But have I taken a single one of those classes?

No.

There’s no good reason that I haven’t. My aunt is the director of Asian American Studies at another college. I’m half-Asian myself, and an arts and sciences student who has yet to declare a major and has no qualms about exploring my options. But before interning at Advancing Justice | AAJC this past summer, I hadn’t given much thought to Asian American history, Asian American issues, or taking an Asian American studies class.

Last month, Berkeley alumna Lisa Wong Macabasco wrote about how Asian American studies opened up her eyes to a new way of seeing the world after, for the first time, she “ saw [herself] reflected in history books.”

Every American deserves that experience. But historically, not every kind of American is represented in our textbooks or elsewhere. Which is why the story of the creation of these programs is another fascinating part of Asian American history that many Americans are oblivious to.

The first Asian American Studies program was started at San Francisco State University in 1969, and it did not come easily. Spurred on by the controversial firing of English instructor George Mason Murray, the Black Students Union and the Third World Liberation Front at SFSU organized a five-month long strike demanding programs of study and support for minority students, as well as Murray’s reinstatement. Their protests shut down the school for weeks at a time and often lead to violent clashes with police and the dozens of student arrests. Faculty joined the students in their strike, refusing orders from university chancellors, state judges and then-governor Ronald Reagan to return to work.

After the longest student strike in American history, the students, teachers and administration finally reached a settlement, which included the creation of the College of Ethnic Studies, the first and only of its kind. In the same year, the University of California, Berkeley also introduced an Ethnic Studies Department after activism from similar student coalitions.

But the achievement of these ground-breaking programs in California during the 1960s did not bring about universal change on college campuses.

In the early 1990s, the Asian American Advisory Board, a pan-Asian student group, exerted pressure on Northwestern University to endorse the creation of an Asian American Studies program with tenure-track positions. Tired of university officials dragging their feet, the AAAB organized protests and a hunger-strike.

Students marched to support the hunger strike and demand an Asian American studies program.

On April 12, 1995 students camped by the Rock, the symbolic center of campus, and refused to eat. One student, Charles Chun, went 12 days consuming only water and fruit juice, and lost twenty pounds. Other students carried on the strike with relay-style fasting. For 23 days, students fasted and protested, before deciding to pursue other means of change. While the hunger strike did not bring immediate action, it had lasting effects far beyond the Northwestern campus.

Students from Stanford to the University of Maryland and everywhere in between were fasting in solidarity and demanding Asian American Studies at their own schools. Major news networks were covering the protests, and again, more than 20 years after San Francisco State, all eyes were on Asian Americans on college campuses.

The student protesters at Northwestern, San Francisco State and other colleges showed the country that Asian Americans would not just keep their heads down to enjoy academic success. They wanted more: more education, more resources, more respect.

They showed that Asian Americans are not apathetic or apolitical. These students were bold, organized, and willing to put their bodies on the line.

Yet two decades later, Asian American Studies are somehow still contentious.

These programs deserve to be celebrated and expanded, but instead they are neglected by students and universities alike. Sustained student interest will play a crucial role in determining if Asian American studies persist on college campuses — and recently renewed pushes for Asian American studies at Northwestern suggest that students are ready to show how important the issue is to them.

For my part, I have set a personal goal to take my first Asian American studies class this year, and I’ll tell anyone who will listen to me all about why they should, too. After spending a summer at an organization dedicated to illuminating the issues that matter to our communities — immigration, access to the ballot, representation — I want to know more about the Asian Americans who helped build our country, and who laid the groundwork for Asian Americans’ participation in advocacy and the political process today.

Asian American students were willing to put their lives on the line to be included in college curricula. Isn’t that a story you want to learn more about?

Sylvia Regan is a student at Northwestern University and was an intern with Advancing Justice | AAJC this past summer.