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U.S. Colleges Embrace Asian American Studies

By Louise Fenner | Staff Writer | 04 April 2012
Students standing in line near wall of film posters (AP Images)

Asian-American students stand in line for a film screening on the University of California, Los Angeles, campus.

Washington — Asian American Studies, an academic curriculum that looks at the experiences and contributions of the United States' fastest-growing racial group, is expanding to more and more U.S. campuses. The field is also evolving as the nation’s Asian-American and Pacific Islander population becomes increasingly diverse.

“It’s important to study the Asian-American population if you really want to understand what the United States is,” said David Yoo, director of the nation’s largest program, the Asian American Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

“Different groups have come here and become part of American society and culture,” he said. “If you don’t understand Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, you are missing a very large piece of that.”

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (alone or in combination with other races) make up nearly 6 percent of the U.S. population, and their numbers are growing faster than those of any other racial group. They constitute 7 percent of the U.S. college student population.

THE ROOTS OF ASIAN AMERICAN STUDIES

Asian American Studies (AAS) was first instituted in San Francisco and Berkeley, California, in 1969 in response to student protests demanding a curriculum that was more inclusive of minorities. For the next two decades, the majority of programs were on the West Coast.

This changed in the late 1980s and 1990s in response to student activism in the East and Midwest. In 1987, Cornell University was the first Ivy League school to institute an Asian American Studies program, and two years later the University of Michigan became the first Midwestern school to do so. One of the first in the Southwest was Arizona State University in 1997.

There are also significant programs at Columbia University, Hunter College (City University of New York), New York University, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of Massachusetts–Boston, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Texas–Austin, according to the Encyclopedia of Asian American Issues Today.

The Association for Asian American Studies lists 32 stand-alone programs, 20 programs within other departments (such as ethnic studies or American studies), and 18 additional campuses that regularly offer Asian American Studies courses.

“The scope and diversity of these programs have expanded dramatically, in part reflecting the fact that since the Immigration Act of 1965 we’ve had a much more diverse Asian population,” said Yoo.

Many programs offer courses focusing on local immigrant populations. The University of Minnesota Twin Cities, for example, has courses in Hmong history and culture. There are Filipino American Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the University of Maryland. UCLA has an endowed academic chair focusing on U.S.-China relations and Chinese American Studies. South Asian Studies is offered to AAS majors at the University of Pennsylvania and Binghamton University in New York, among others.

The U.S. Department of Education funds nine South Asia national resource centers at universities across the country; these centers specialize in the study of South Asian languages and cultures.

Carolyn Chen, director of Asian American Studies at Northwestern University, said the program isn’t just a service for Asian-American students: “We see it as contributing to the American narrative, to a larger story about who Americans are.”

At the request of students, Chen is teaching a course on what it means to be a second-generation Asian American. Next year there will be courses on the Korean-American experience and the South-Asian experience, because “those are things students are telling us they want,” she said. “These courses touch on larger issues of immigration and assimilation that are important for all Americans, not just Asian Americans.”

Asians make up about 5 percent of the population in the Chicago area, but at Northwestern and many elite universities the percentage is far higher — 20 percent — said Chen. About 200 students are enrolled in Asian American Studies at Northwestern this quarter. Nearly 30 are working toward a minor, and others are taking classes out of curiosity or to meet other degree requirements.

Those who minor in Asian American Studies end up in a wide range of careers, said Chen. “They go to med school, become lawyers, become businesspeople, work in film, go into academia, work for nonprofits,” said Chen. “They do everything and anything.”

See Asians Are Fastest-Growing Racial Group in U.S.

See also a U.S. Census Bureau report (PDF, 2.69MB) on the U.S. Asian population and the website of UCLA's Asian American Center.

Group of South Asian students posing for photo in classroom (Courtesy of Anokha)

Anokha is an a capella group of South Asian American and international students attending the University of Maryland.