UPDATED:  June 25, 2007 5:23 PM
to reach Asian Pacific Americans, reach for Asian Fortune news

Asian Pacific American Studies at University of Virginia Reflect Growth and Change within APA University Life

By: Amanda Andrei

Charlottesville, VA -- Beginning in 2004 with only 2 students, the Asian Pacific American Studies (APAS) minor at the University of Virginia has since then had or currently has 20 students enrolled.    Out of all the colleges and universities in the state of Virginia, UVA is the only school to offer an Asian American studies program.

Last year’s undergraduate populations of Asian American students were at 10.8%, higher than any other ethnic minority at the University.  Likewise, the number of APA alumni has surpassed the number of African American alumni.  UVA’s growing population of Asian American students reflects Virginia’s own growth of APA inhabitants.  As of 2000, more than 310,000 APAs reside in the state, ranking it as the third largest in APA population among the southern states.  Demographers predict that within twenty-five years, Virginia will hold almost 15 percent of southern states’ APA population—around 520,000 Asian Americans.  At least half of these individuals will hold bachelor’s degrees, making it even more important for higher education to offer a diverse range of studies and educational opportunities.

Momentum for the APAS minor began building almost a decade ago, along with increased Asian Pacific American (APA) activism and the first dean dedicated to APA affairs, Glenna Chang.  Vishal Patel, an assistant director for reunions and alumni activities at Alumni Hall and a graduate from the UVA College of Arts and Sciences, remembers that “quantitatively there were not enough APA students until the late 80s, early 90s, but a critical mass of APA students on grounds were pushing for a dean and a minor,” as well as other programs for Asian American students.

In the coming years, pan-Asian American organizations continued to grow.  Along with the Asian Student Union, students developed the Asian Pacific American Leadership Training Institute.  This seminar-long workshop trained young APA first-year and second-year students how to deal not only with other APA organizations, but other UVA student government groups as well.  In 2004, the same year the APAS minor became official, UVA also hosted the East Coast Asian American Student Union conference, a gathering of over 700 college students to discuss significant issues within the APA community and unify Asian American organizations. 

Along with this dynamic growth, the APA deans changed as well—after Glenna Chang left in 2001, there were three other deans, including Daisy Rodriguez, who helped formulate the APAS minor in 2004.  Before the official creation of the minor, the dean at the time would teach Asian American studies.  Sylvia Chong, an assistant professor for English and American Studies and the director of the APAS minor, recounts, “this was a big deal because this was one of the first times [the class] was taught, and she did it for free.”

Despite student-initiated interest, the main issue that kept the APAS minor from fruition for so long was the fact that there were not enough professors and staff to teach the subjects.  Richard Handler, a dean of the College for seven years and a professor of anthropology, recalls that many of his Asian American students came to him for advice and administration help in producing the minor.  “Asian American students may not see APAS as a priority,” Handler explains.  "If enough faculty in a few years want it, it can happen.  These types of things only happen if the faculty wants it to."

During this time, in an attempt to diversify the American Studies department faculty, two professors were hired: Sylvia Chong in English, and Pensri Ho in anthropology.  Handler recalls, “[The department] didn't hire Pensri and Sylvia to teach APAS, but it happened that way.”  Ultimately, achieving official status of the minor occurs when the professors construct and teach classes relevant to the program. 

Students need at least six of such classes (for a total of eighteen credits) to obtain the minor.  This requires a general survey course on Asian Pacific Americans; a cultural, political, racial, or gender-based theory survey course; and an Asian transnational or diasporic course in the modern era.   The interdisciplinary minor also requires three more electives, ranging from English to Education classes and anthropological to political courses.  Class topics range from modern Chinese politics to Asian American Drama to Women and Power in Indian History.  In this way, students can focus on certain regions as well as academic subjects while still getting a broad overview of Asian American history, culture, and political thought. 

Acquiring knowledge clearly remains an important attribute of the APAS minor, but it is the application of this knowledge that makes studying Asian Pacific American issues so important and relevant.  Huong Nguyen, the former ‘03-‘04 Asian Student Union President, a graduate of UVA’s College of Arts & Sciences class of ‘05, and an honorary recipient of the APAS minor offers her student perspective.

“I was fascinated by race theory to begin with, so the logical procession was to study race dynamics in America.  [Asian Pacific American Studies] informs the larger human experience, and it is a lens to use to look at the white-black relations.”  In addition to majoring in Anthropology and minoring in APAS, Nguyen supplemented her courses with African American Studies classes to gain different perspectives on the experience of minorities in the United States.  

As a professor of many APAS courses, Sylvia Chong explains, “Studying Asian Americans is really about studying America and how America deals with a racial minority group.  For example, it’s not just ‘the Philippines’—we ask, what are the consequences? What do we make of the World’s Fair? What does it mean that America held the Philippines as a colony yet still excluded them? What does this mean for the Filipino veterans of World War II? APAS asks those questions—it’s a difference in focus.” 

Once obtaining knowledge on the history of Asian America, students can contextualize and apply their knowledge to current situations.  Students may ask how to respond to hate crimes on their campus, or how policies on immigration of Hispanics today compare to historical immigration patterns of Asians.  In this way, students gain valuable skills in analysis and critical thinking.  Officially acknowledging and teaching these courses “legitimizes” this branch of ethnic studies, and it makes these classes available to non-APA students as well.  Most importantly, Chong emphasizes obtaining an “APA consciousness” through these studies.

“Having a presence on campus, students can see that they are not isolated but have some kind of common cause,” Chong says.  “An APA consciousness means students stepping up and defending themselves.  Without an APA consciousness, would something that happens to an APA student be interpreted as a racial incident?”  This awareness allows students to analyze and examine the deeper implications of events within the Asian American community. 

            In spite of its success and growth, the Asian Pacific American Studies program at UVA has taken several hits.  In 2006, Professor Pensri Ho and Dean Daisy Rodriguez left for reasons unrelated to the program.  This absence caused anxiety among the students who worried that the minor would no longer continue since only one of the three coordinators remained to direct and oversee it.  As of 2007, a committee of students and faculty is in the process of hiring a new professor.  However, the loss of teachers did not decrease the applications of students interested in obtaining the minor. 

“Because we’re small and don’t have lots of resources, we have to keep track of the students,” Chong remarks on why students must apply to APAS.  “It helps build a community in a small program and provides support.  We want everyone who applies to ask ‘Why [am I] applying?’ and finish the minor.”

“The only thing I would fix about the minor is to get some staff out there ASAP,” Huong Ngyuen says.  “It’s not a full-fledged program or chaired by tenured professors.”  Despite this, Ngyuen sees great room for growth of the Asian Pacific American Studies program.  “Culturally, Asian American Studies in a Southern school gives an opportunity to have discourse in a black and white binary.  Although there is a limit to which alumni can exert influence, I’d like to see UVA eventually compete with Berkley and have research.”

Vishal Patel echoes this sentiment by acknowledging, “It’s up to elite institutions to push the envelope in academia and to identify new trends.  UVA’s position in Virginia has much broader mandate than other schools [in Virginia].  There is a gap between what is going on and what we’re studying—demographics are going in such a heavy direction.  If we’re not examining research and critical theory, who’s going to do it?” 

Dean Richard Handler concedes from his point of view, “It didn’t ever convince me that Asian American students wanted [this program]—I believed they would take a course on Asian Americans, but I never believed they would want a major.  I told students it’s hard to get a minor or major unless there were faculty members to do it.  But this has made deans aware we need to be thinking about this area [of study].” 

“The hope is from the program and deans that APAS is a good thing,” Professor Sylvia Chong states, “and worth reinforcing and growing and continuing to find affiliated faculty and allies.  The existence of APAS enriches the university as a whole.”

Thanks to support and pressure from students and the creativity and encouragement of faculty, the University of Virginia has taken a step forward to bettering its range and quality of education through the Asian Pacific American studies minor.  Especially as a southern institution of education, UVA as well as its educational peers should strive to cater to the dynamic growth within their student bodies.  The opportunities to gain the “APA consciousness” have increased considerably, but improvement must be made in hiring staff and providing more classes.  With the growing number of Asian Americans enrolling in colleges across the United States and the expanding influence between America and Asian countries, the nation needs more than ever young professionals who understand where they came from, where they are going, and how to analyze the world around them.

Photo caption:

Professor Sylvia Chong with APAS minor graduates of 2007: Drew Austria, Government and American Studies double major, and Meghan Sweeney, American Studies and History double major

back to news