Asian Students Demand Asian Student Space
Issue   |   Tue, 04/10/2018 - 21:35

Asian and Asian-American students make up more than 14 percent of the student body here at Amherst College. Asian students are the largest racial minority group on campus — yet, there are very few resources dedicated to Asian students. In particular, there is no specific student room for Asian students, which has left Asian affinity groups scattered around campus with no space where they can feel safe to host meetings, have discussions and build community.

Unlike La Causa, whose meetings are held in the José Martí Room (created in 1979), and the Black Student Union (BSU), whose meetings are held in the Gerald Penny Black Cultural Center (established in the 1970s), the various Asian affinity groups on campus are forced to meet in various spaces on-campus. The Asian Students Association (ASA) has resorted to meeting either in the Multicultural Resource Center (MRC) or Chapin Lounge. The South Asian Students Association (SASA) meets in Chapin Lounge. The Korean Students Association (KSA) meets either in the James or Stearns common room. These spaces are troublesome because of their general public access and the irregularity of their availability. The MRC is too small and underfunded to support the nearly half of the student body who identify as students of color, and its broad scope means that the space is not designated specifically for Asian students.

Across Amherst College, there has been a consistent lack of institutional support for the programming work done by ASA, SASA and KSA. Programs surrounding Asian American identity have been initiated and facilitated solely by Asian students on campus, who are not being paid for their labor and must work in addition to their typical academic and extracurricular schedules. Week-to-week programming (from the speakers invited by the President’s Office to discussions hosted by various departments) on Asian-American identity simply doesn’t exist on campus. The least the administration can do to support Asian students is to give them a room in which they can continue their work in engaging the student body on issues of Asian and Asian-American identity.

Louis Briones ’19, a current senior co-chair of La Causa, explained that the José Martí Room “provides students a safe space on campus that they can call their own at Amherst in order to foster community, especially on a campus that sometimes doesn’t feel meant for Latinx students. With the onset of troubling and alarming global events as of now, having a space in the José Martí Room allows me to engage with my own community in comfort and dialogue.” Jeremy Thomas ’21, a member of BSU Executive Board, said, “because many students of color can feel isolated and lonely at a predominantly white institution, the Gerald Penny Center is a wonderful place to build community, and to have a space on campus to call our own.”

A room for Asian and Asian-American students would provide space for connection and community, especially given the lack of support these students are typically given by the administration.

There is no lack of student interest regarding more institutional support and visibility for Asian students on campus. With three regularly meeting affinity groups, Asian students are actively seeking out resources and community. At ASA’s first meeting of the 2017-18 school year, over 90 people attended, and approximately 20 students consistently attend weekly general ASA meetings. Over 40 people attended SASA’s first meeting of the year, and its conferences and events regularly draw over 30 people. Diwali, its hallmark event of 2017, had an attendance of over 100 people. In addition, over 45 students attended KSA’s first meeting of the year, with the group’s larger events such as cooking nights drawing about 50 people.

The absence of a student room for Asian students at Amherst replicates the displacement and invisibility that Asians feel in the United States at large. Placed in a black-and-white racial dichotomy, many Asian Americans have continually felt confusion and uncertainty surrounding their racial identities. The model minority myth largely erases the narratives of Asian Americans who are low-income and first-generation college students. Equivalently, international Asian students often find themselves shoehorned into American racial structures and find that there is no physical space where they may explore some of the cultural and intellectual tensions between nationality and race.

Additionally, Asian students are routinely left out of conversations surrounding diversity and students of color on campus. Last year, comments made by an admissions staff member failed to include Asian students when referencing diversity. When a racially-charged bias incident targeting Asian students occurred in Fall 2016 outside Seligman House, the administration failed to send out an email addressing the incident. Numerous Asian students have experienced racist comments from peers as well as professors and staff members, which the administration has failed to adequately address. Last year, when the degrading comments made by the men’s cross country team were revealed, no effort was made to address the racialized nature of their words, some of which specifically targeted Asian women. With very few Asian or Asian American staff members in offices that directly support students, Amherst College lacks the institutional resources to understand the multitude of Asian and Asian American student experiences on campus.

If Amherst wants to take diversity and inclusion seriously, the administration must immediately take steps to create an Asian-centered student space. This year, the Office of Diversity & Inclusion launched The Belong Campaign, which aims to “cultivate an inclusive, equitable community” for all students at Amherst. Asian students at Amherst have frequently expressed a sense of not belonging and feeling uncomfortable in many spaces on campus; giving Asian students a dedicated space is the bare minimum the administration can do to facilitate a change in this aspect of the campus culture. A room specifically designated for Asian and Asian-American students is necessary for the goal of allowing Asian students a space to be their full selves on campus. Although Asian students have already had multiple meetings with administration members over the last few years, there has been little recognition of the urgent need of such a space.

In terms of resources for Asian students on campus, Amherst severely lags behind its peers. At Mount Holyoke College, the Asian Center for Empowerment has supported Asian students since 1998. At UMass, the Yuri Kochiyama Cultural Center supports Asian students through programming, discussions and advocacy. Tufts has an Asian & Asian American Center which supports Asian and Asian-American students on campus. These centers constitute physical spaces in which Asian students can gather and feel comfortable having discussions surrounding their racial identities and intellectual heritage.

Asians have pushed for academic, cultural and political recognition in the United States through years of determined effort. The Amherst community is no different. Students of Asian descent face unique challenges that deserve attention, and a physical space from which students can build community, engage with questions of identity and organize is a crucial step in creating a campus where everyone belongs.

On behalf of ASA,
ShoYoung Shin ’19 (President)
Olivia Zheng ’20 (Political Engagement Chair)
Janelle Le ’20 (Community Building Chair)
Kevin Zhangxu ’20 (Outreach Chair)
Ariana Lee ’20 (Political Committee Member)
Emily Ye ’20 (Political Committee Member)
Sivian Yu ’20 (Political Committee Member)

On behalf of SASA,
Shreeansh Agrawal ’20E (Co-President)
Swati Narayan ’20 (Co-President)
Shivani Patel ’21 (Political Engagement Chair)

On behalf of KSA,
Christine Chung ’20 (Co-President)
Jenny Chung ’20 (Co-President)