Op-ed: The University needs an Asian American studies program

Ariel Santikarma, a senior majoring in anthropology, and Carolyne Im, a junior majoring in political communication, are members of the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Alliance.

The world has changed since students began advocating for an Asian American studies minor in spring 2017. 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Asian and Asian American students at GW have borne witness to growing anti-Asian xenophobia. Across the country, we have been forced to recognize the instability of the Model Minority Myth. Politicians have used the coronavirus and deeply embedded anti-Asian sentiment to advance anti-immigrant, exclusionary nationalist, anti-Black and White supremacist rhetoric. Still, Asian Americans remain stereotyped as apolitical, quiet and submissive subjects in the United States. 

Today, Asian American students and faculty at GW are resisting these stereotypes, all while the University neglects to recognize our histories and cultures. An Asian American minor would help change that, and we must push for it through this petition.  

“Given these numbers, it makes sense to create a program that speaks to Asian American perspectives, faculty say. But that program has been conspicuously absent despite years of advocacy.”

Many Asian American students at GW come from decades of lived experiences in which our histories are distorted or untold. We come to GW, an institution that claims to care about diversity and intellectual progress, to look for accurate and timely knowledge about Asian American history, but we find next to nothing: no programs, no centers, no institutional support – only student-led advocacy and community.

Professors Patricia Chu and Dana Tai Soon Burgess are intimately involved in advocating for the creation of an Asian American studies program. For years, they have been in talks with officials, and in the spring semester of 2020, they submitted a proposal for a minor. Since then, the administration has requested that they demonstrate student interest in and the academic importance of the minor by Oct. 26. 

Today – and for the past three years – student organizations and leaders from across campus are advocating for access to our own histories, recently converging as the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Alliance. Asian American history is American history and is world history. The University must support and implement an Asian American studies minor to support the student population in both personal and intellectual growth. 

In the 2019-2020 academic year, Asian American students made up about 10 percent of the population, the largest racial minority on campus. In the same year, Black students made up 10 percent of the student population, Hispanic students 8.7 percent and Native students 0.18 percent. 

Given these numbers, it makes sense to create a program that speaks to Asian American perspectives, faculty say. But that program has been conspicuously absent despite years of advocacy.

Aaron Datta, a junior studying economics and international affairs and a leader in the Asian American Student Association, said Asian American studies – as well as all humanities and social sciences – matter because regardless of one’s field of study, one must understand themselves in a social context. 

Datta said University President Thomas LeBlanc’s push to increase funding for STEM and decrease funding for the humanities hurts all students.

“What people miss when they purely look at STEM is that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” they explained. “It’s affected by culture and people. If we don’t take time to understand how people think and evolve and treat each other, then we won’t be able to understand STEM.”  

While GW positions itself as an institution of higher education that competes with a multitude of private, elite universities across the United States, its own peer universities have surpassed it in recognizing the importance of Asian American histories. New York, Syracuse and Tufts universities and the University of Southern California  – all peer institutions – have robust Asian American studies programs. GW is severely lagging in their lack of attention and care for ethnic studies and the student population it services. 

Asian American studies is critical for an institution that prides itself on preparing well-rounded students who can understand and conquer complex challenges in global politics, STEM, policy and the private sector. The question, then, is not only what we would gain, but what we have been missing. The absence of an Asian American studies program is a grave failure on the part of the University and we urge the administration to understand the importance of and implement this program for the sake of all students. 

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