Student survey shows high interest in Asian American studies ahead of new proposal

Annie Lu and Tali Natter

Faculty, staff, and students submitted a proposal for an Asian American studies (AAS) program on Nov. 3 to the Committee on Educational Affairs (CEA), the student-faculty committee that will deliberate on the proposal and decide whether it will be discussed at an upcoming faculty meeting.

Establishment of an AAS program — as with any other academic program — requires review and approval by the CEA and Committee on Appointments and Promotions (CAP), as well as a vote by the faculty at large.

In an email to the Record, Chair and Associate Professor of American Studies Jan Padios wrote that the main components of the proposal include an introduction to the field of Asian American studies and arguments for its academic merits; a history of Asian American studies activism, staffing, and classes at the College; a description of the proposed curriculum and course catalog; a discussion of potential staffing needs; and acknowledgements of people who have contributed to the movement for Asian American studies at the College.

This initiative follows over three decades of activism and similar proposals in the past. To collect data on student demand for an AAS program, Asian American Students in Action (AASiA) sent a survey to the entire student body on Oct. 18 — the results of which were included in the program’s proposal.

Key takeaways from the survey

The survey received 279 responses from students, of whom 40 percent self-identified as Asian or Pacific Islander. Of the College’s total degree-seeking undergraduate population in fall 2022, 13.5 percent identified as Asian. The survey asked questions gauging student interest in AAS classes and an AAS concentration, in addition to leaving space for open-ended comments. Not every question on the survey was required, resulting in some questions receiving fewer than 279 answers.

Eighty-seven percent (239 students) of respondents said they were likely or very likely to have enrolled in more AAS classes, had more been offered, and 73 percent (202 students) said they were likely or very likely to enroll in more AAS courses if they are offered next fall.

In an interview with the Record, co-Chair of AASiA Frances Leung ’25 noted that those 202 students would be enough to fill 13 classes of roughly 15 people — a stark difference from the two AAS courses offered this year. “How many educational and academic opportunities are being denied to students … because these classes are not offered?” Leung said.

Twenty-six percent (72 students) of respondents said they were likely or very likely to have declared an AAS concentration, had it already been offered, and 23 percent (63 students) said they are likely or very likely to declare an AAS concentration if one is offered in the future.

AASiA co-Chair Sunny Hu ’24 and AASiA Communications Manager Ashley Shan ’26 both stressed that the importance of an AAS program extends beyond educational comprehensiveness, because it relates to students’ identities as well.

“There have been quotes and comments [in students’ survey responses] on how the current Asian American studies courses they’ve taken are ones where they feel safe,” Hu said.

Shan said she feels that an AAS program is necessary for people to understand both their own identities and others’ identities. “I’ve been on campus for two months now, and I’ve already had multiple people tell me that Asian Americans aren’t POC, or that we don’t fit under the term of BIPOC, and other microaggressions,” Shan said. “Coming here, I realized there’s actually a lot of racism on campus that hasn’t been addressed, and I think concentrations like the Asian American studies concentration are necessary to educate other people about the differences that are on campus that they may not be exposed to.”

History of recent AAS activism

Students and faculty have been fighting for the establish ment of an AAS program for 34 years through actions such as proposals, photo campaigns, poster and chalk events, and teach-ins.

This proposal follows a prospectus that Padios and Professor of American Studies Dorothy Wang submitted in November 2021, which sought to centralize AAS in its own department and hire two new full-time faculty members solely in AAS. That prospectus did not catalyze further action from the College administration, however. “In a conversation with the CAP that followed the submission of the prospectus, the CAP reiterated a desire to see a proposal for Asian American studies and that they would only consider additional hires after program formation,” Padios said. “There were some conversations after it was submitted and read by the CEA and CAP, but nothing concrete came of it.” Two proposals for an AAS program in 2004 and 2012 were also ultimately rejected by the College.

In February 2019, a Curricular Planning Committee working group recommended that the College make two tenure-track appointments for faculty with specialized training in AAS and formalize an AAS program with a concentration. As a result, Padios was hired in February 2020 as the College’s third tenured Asian Americanist along with Wang and Professor of History, Emeritus, Scott Wong, who retired at the end of last year. Assistant Professor of American Studies Kelly Chung was hired to a tenure-track position in American studies in fall 2022 following a visitor professorship in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) from 2020-2021.

Despite these new hires, student activists noted that these professors have teaching and administrative obligations that make it difficult for them to focus exclusively on AAS. Padios noted that the discussions of staffing are also informed by the departure of former Assistant Professor of WGSS Vivian Huang. “Huang’s departure is acknowledged as a loss we hope the administration remedies as soon as possible,” she wrote.

This new proposal differs from prior proposals in that it contains a description of the potential curriculum for an AAS concentration, as well as a draft of what would appear in the course catalog were the program to exist, Padios explained. The survey data is integrated into a section of the proposal titled “Current Student Interest.”

“It’s a powerful snapshot of what the title suggests and is constituted by results of the survey, both quantitative and qualitative,” Padios wrote. “All together, accounts of past and present student interest show that the desire for an Asian American studies program has been lasting.”

Next steps

The CEA has taken up consideration of the proposal, according to Professor of English and Chair of the CEA Stephen Tifft. Although Tifft said that it is too early to outline what considerations the CEA will take into account while debating the merits of the proposal, he described its initial discussions as productive. “We, as well as other committees, are working hard to try to bring the proposal to the faculty in the December faculty meeting,” he said.

In the meantime, AASiA board members are continuing their activism through other activities, including a photo campaign to raise awareness about the movement. “Students have a lot of say and can really be a part of the movement by advocating on its behalf and talking to their professors about why they need a program,” Hu said.

AASiA Minority Coalition Representative Jahnavi Kirtane ’24 noted how the push for AAS fits into the history of other movements for ethnic studies at the College, such as the 1969 occupation of Hopkins Hall that led to the creation of the Africana studies department and the 1993 hunger strike for Latino/a studies that was recently remembered in an alum panel. “This work does not end with just establishing Asian American studies,” Kirtane said. “It’s our hope that we can try to make sure that we have all identities represented in our curriculum.”

This article was updated at 10:05 am on Nov. 16 to include more detail on Professor Chung’s hiring timeline.