UPDATED:  February 28, 2008 10:45 AM
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Asian American Students ' Push Forward' at ECAASU Conference Held in Cornell U

By: Amanda L. Andrei

ITHACA, New York–Braving the snow and the wind, over 1,400 students made their way to Cornell University here to participate in the 33rd annual East Coast Asian American Student Union (ECAASU) Conference, held on February 15-16.

They were motivated to “Push Forward,” as they reflected on the past 30 years of ECAASU, examine their present progress, and explore their opportunities and potentials as Asian Americans.

“Cornell has a history of hosting ECAASU every ten years,” remarked Helen Tsang, co-director of the conference. “Hopefully, ten years later in 2018, Cornell will be the host of ECAASU once again.”

With over 50 workshops and panels to attend, students could choose from a wide range of themes, including immigration, self and community identity, media and arts, gender issues, health, and leadership and activism.

“I came to the conference so that I could meet other students and faculty members interested in promoting Asian American Studies and ethnic studies as a whole,” said Angela Lee, a freshman at Yale University. Noting the lack of APA classes at Yale, she attended a workshop on Asian American Studies facilitated by Larry Shinagawa, director of the Asian American Studies (AAST) program at the University of Maryland.

“Taking a course (in Asian American studies) can be a life-changing experience,” Dr. Shinagawa explained. “You remember it for the rest of your life and you continue to express it.” By relating his own experiences in beginning the AAST program at UMD, he advised students in galvanizing their own AAST programs at their schools as a way to gain a voice in education and keep that voice in life beyond the university.

As Gary Okihiro, the former director of Cornell’s AAST Program and current professor at Columbia University, stated in the conference’s opening keynote speech, having an Asian American Studies program is about “opening the American body and mind” and gaining “the power to know and dream and obtain the measure of human dignity.”  

Voter Power

ECAASU stressed voter power, particularly among the youth. Asian Americans have the lowest voter registration rate. Among the reasons: disinterest, not knowing how or where to register, not being able to meet registration deadlines, or having difficulty with English.

Young voters age 18-29 have increased thier voter turnout in the 2004 and 2006 elections. But despite an 8% increase from 2000, only 36% of Asian American youth voted in 2004–far behind the white and African American youth voters.

In a workshop sponsored by APIAVote, Director of Organizing and Training Pabitra Benjamin taught students how to set up their own voter registrations at their campuses. Following a guide for student voter mobilization, she explained, “Voting is a systematic effort as well as a personal power and a community power.”

Although APA youth have the lowest voter registration among minority youth groups, once registered, they have an 80% voter turnout. This shows that the biggest hurdle in the APA community is registering people to vote. Hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang noted in his keynote address, “People are paying attention to young and Asian American voters, since in 2004 a record number of young people of color came out to vote.”

While the workshops speak to the students’ heads, speakers spoke to the students’ hearts. CBS reality show “Survivor” runner-up Becky Lee and winner Yul Kwon delivered the closing addresses of the conference. Relating their own life experiences and their stories of being contestants on “Survivor,” they encouraged students to put their doubts aside and unite as a community.

“The result of not taking a risk can be detrimental,” Becky Lee stated. “I went on the show to go beyond the show.” Yul Kwon acknowledged how he was able to turn the controversial, racially-charged spin on the “Survivor” season and portray Asian Americans as “leaders who can work with people of different backgrounds and use diplomacy, not violence.”

For 33 years, ECAASU has inspired and empowered Asian American youth through its strong intercollegiate network, as well as advocacy for the social equality of minorities. Eddy Hong, a junior at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, hopes to apply what he learned at ECAASU to his leadership positions within his campus.

“While it’s important to recognize one’s racial heritage and the difficulties and conflicts that come with it, it cannot be the limiting factor for growth and change for the community as a whole,” he remarked. This weekend, students were encouraged to go beyond those limiting factors, beyond their comfort zones, and beyond their expectations.

For more information on ECAASU 2008 at Cornell University, visit http://www.arts.cornell.edu/asianam/ecaasu. In February next year, “ECAASU 2009: Different Worlds, One Vision,” will be held at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Cornell first hosted the ECAASU Conference in 1988, celebrating a decade of Asian American activism since the initial conference. Ten years later, the university hosted the conference again as “Leading the Way into the 21st Century.” 

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