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Editorial: It's Time to Step Up for Asian American Studies

The creation of Asian American Studies programs is among our community's greatest triumphs, and one of our enduring struggles.
High School Student Raises Hand
Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

I would not be who I am without Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Studies.

I can trace my genesis as an Asian-American activist, writer, and intersectional feminist to my first Asian American Studies class: Cornell’s Introduction to Asian American History, which was being taught for the first time in 2002 by a new faculty recruit, Professor Derek Chang. Prior to Professor Chang’s class, I had already become aware involved in on-campus racial advocacy. I was already aware of anti-Asian racism and gendered violence, and I was already youthfully angry about it. But, I lacked a broader context for my emerging activism. I credit Professor Chang’s classes for giving my activism the broad, researched foundation that continues to inform my writing and advocacy today.

I remember walking into a 200-seat auditorium and being humbled that the room was filled to capacity with expectant Asian-American students. A boyish, bespectacled, Chinese-American man stood at the front of the classroom. He held up a book, “Strangers From a Different Shore” by Ron Takaki, and invited us to join him in a journey into our collective past.

A signed inscription of the Asian American historical text “Strangers From a Different Shore” by Professor Ronald Takaki which reads “Remember our roots. Memory is political.”
A signed inscription of the Asian American historical text “Strangers From a Different Shore” by Professor Ronald Takaki which reads “Remember our roots. Memory is political.”Courtesy of Jenn Fang

"This space becomes a kind of safe space for students," Chang said in a September profile with the Cornell Daily Sun. "Our courses become a kind of place where students can sit and think and talk about questions that affect them that they cannot get elsewhere on campus."

"Asian American Studies exists to help us to know ourselves and our history."

I am a product of that safe space. Over the course of that semester, I soaked up the teaching of our history that had been so overlooked in earlier classrooms and was humbled by my place in the legacy of the political AAPI movement. I developed a diasporic and archipelagic appreciation for the pan-ethnic AAPI community that recognized the similarities of our common causes, while also celebrating our inter-ethnic differences. I built an intersectional politic that positioned my identity with relation to American race, gender, class, and sexuality.

I was fortunate to have been able to incubate my youthful activism within Cornell’s Asian American Studies Programs. I emerged from this experience with a more considered personal politic and a deeper commitment to social justice. All AAPI youth across this nation deserve similar opportunity.

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Cornell's Asian American Studies Program was founded in 1987 as the first of its kind at an Ivy League university. Its creation was one of several victories won by Asian-American students who agitated across the country for Asian American Studies. Beginning in the 1960s, we staged mass protests, teach-ins, and walkouts, focused on communicating the necessity and the benefits of academic programs devoted to our history and identity as AAPI.

Yet, many school administrators were unmoved by these efforts. Half a century after the emergence of Asian American Studies, less than 50 of the nation's nearly 5,000 degree-granting colleges and universities offer students the ability to pursue a major from a stand-alone Asian American Studies program. Most Ivy League universities boast an Asian-American student population of 20 percent or more, yet in the 30 years since Cornell created its landmark Asian American Studies Program, only the University of Pennsylvania has followed this lead. Brown, Columbia, and Harvard each offer Asian-American Studies courses as part of a larger multidisciplinary ethnic studies program. At Dartmouth, Princeton, and Yale, no Asian American Studies programs exist at all.

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Over the last several years, students and faculty have redoubled their efforts to demand creation of Asian American Studies programs at these and other schools, but they've been met with resistance and the suggestion that perhaps that field of study is a dying one.

But if ethnic studies programs are dying, this occurs only because university leadership starves them of resources and students.

Last month, alumni of the University of Michigan wrote a candid open letter documenting the slow demise of one of the country's oldest Asian American Studies programs. Highlighting a lack of funding and institutional support, a dramatic cut in class offerings, and an almost total exclusion of AAPI faculty and students from the program's activities, they wrote, "What is now at stake is the permanent loss of what all of us have created."

Make no mistake: these are our programs. Our community’s student activists worked to create these programs. Where they were successful, Asian American Studies programs have influenced generations of AAPI students. These courses laid the groundwork for the activism of many of today's AAPI most prominent advocates and intellectuals. The creation of Asian American Studies programs is among our community's greatest triumphs, and one of our enduring struggles.

Today, groups of student and faculty activists continue to work tirelessly within this nation’s colleges and universities to build and sustain Asian American Studies programs. New efforts are also focused on improving focus and scholarship focused on Southeast Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Studies into existing programs.

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Yet, somewhere along the way, mainstream Asian America became complacent on this issue. Gone are the days of mass demonstrations, coordinated community-wide campaigns, and unified outcry for Asian American Studies. We took our collective eye off the ball, and left our Asian American Studies programs to fend for themselves; now, they languish from our inattention.

"The creation of Asian American Studies programs is among our community's greatest triumphs, and one of our enduring struggles."

But now it's time to step up for Asian American Studies. We need to get angry; or, if we're already angry, we need to get angrier. We need to get out our giant Sharpies and our cardboard signs. We need to chant and protest and disrupt and agitate. We need to demand meetings with campus administrators. We need to write open letters. We need to stage walk-ins and walk-outs. We need to take Twitter by storm. We need to create selfie campaigns and trend those hashtags (#WeNeedAAPIStudies). We need to speak up about why and how Asian American Studies has mattered to us.

Faculty, we need to consider cross-listing relevant courses with Asian American Studies. Alumni, we need to donate.

Above all: students, we need to enroll in those AAPI Studies classes. Student enrollment determines the survival or demise of any academic program, and too many of our current AAPI Studies programs are struggling with low student enrollment despite near universal consensus that students want these courses.

We need to send the message—and we need to send it as loud and clear as possible—that we will not stand for the demise of Asian American Studies. We need instead to renew our commitment that Asian American Studies programs, and all ethnic studies programs, should be widely accessible to our nation's college students.

Late civil rights and Asian-American movement icon Yuri Kochiyama once said, "Unless we know ourselves and our history, and other people and their history, there is really no way that we can really have [the] positive kind of interaction where there is real understanding."

Asian American Studies exists to help us to know ourselves and our history. A more socially just future cannot happen without their work to preserve and teach about the injustices of our past.

Jenn Fang is founder of, one of the web’s oldest blogs dedicated to Asian-American feminism, pop culture, and politics.