New Asian Pacific American Studies Minor Launches at 'Vital Time in Our History'
A decades-long effort by faculty, student and community groups succeeded in establishing the new minor.
The University of Arizona is launching a new minor in Asian Pacific American studies, centered on what has become the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the United States.
The new minor, housed in the Department of East Asian Studies in the College of Humanities, is the result of more than two decades of work and comes at a time of highly visible anti-Asian racism and violence in the United States, related in part to the coronavirus pandemic.
"I am deeply grateful to all who worked to make this exciting new minor possible, and I am thrilled to see it launch, especially at this vital time in our history," said Liesl Folks, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost.
The field of Asian Pacific American studies analyzes immigrants and generations of their descendants from Asia and the Pacific islands, which includes over 50 nationalities represented in the United States. The minor will address four core research areas: immigration and diaspora studies; American international and domestic politics; cultural and media studies; and Orientalism, the term articulated by late Columbia University professor Edward Said to describe Eurocentric prejudice and commonly contemptuous depictions and portrayals of "The East."
"As the path to empathy and understanding, education is essential in combating prejudice and hatred. We hope that students from across the campus can join with world-class faculty to explore courses about the rich cultures that make up the Asian Pacific American experience," said Alain-Philippe Durand, dean of the College of Humanities. "For students who graduate with the minor, we are confident they'll be well-prepared with the global mindset and analytical skills necessary to compete and succeed in the 21st-century workforce."
Assistant professor of practice Brett Esaki conducted a feasibility study that showed a broad acknowledgement from students that the new minor fills an important need for to the 21st-century global workforce.
"When you learn about Asian Pacific Americans, you're learning about foundational aspects of our globalized world, and we want to have a very practical program, designed to be applicable and address a broad population," said Esaki, who helped shepherd the proposal for the minor, from East Asian Studies and religious studies faculty, to the final working group. "The positive thing for me is that this is something that has been developing for quite some time. It's not some kind of reactionary move. The working group is the latest manifestation and it's the right time now. We have the wind at our backs."
Students have been pushing for an Asian Pacific American studies program since the creation of the Asian Pacific American Student Affairs center, said Tia Hunt, a graduating senior majoring in electrical and computer engineering who worked at the center as a staff member and an intern for its board of directors. Hunt is also a former executive board member for the UArizona Filipino American Student Association.
"It's a win nearly 30 years in the making," she said. "For a long time, APA stories were missing in our local history. Growing up in Tucson, I was never aware of my own racial history right here in town, from the Gordon Hirabayashi Campground on Mount Lemmon to the Chinese grocers such as Lee Wee Kwon who once dominated Tucson's grocery business."
"It's been such an affirming experience for me to be able to take one of the foundational courses for the minor ... in my last semester here," Hunt said. "APA stories are foundational to the university and Tucson community, and they deserve to be told. Now, students have the opportunity to hear and learn from them."
Kimberly Jones, vice dean for academic affairs in the College of Humanities, was acting head of the Department of East Asian Studies in 2002, when student demand spurred a then-unsuccessful effort to establish an Asian American studies program.
"This has surfaced now and then over the years, but it's emerging at a time when it can really meet a need. This time around, there was community interest expressed as well, so it's not only students, but the Asian American community in Tucson," Jones said. "Now we have more faculty with specialties in this area, so we're able to offer a more robust slate of courses."
Joining Esaki as core faculty members are Jonathan Jae-an Crisman, assistant professor of public and applied humanities; Dian Li, professor of East Asian studies; and Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan, assistant professor of English and social, cultural and critical theory.
Among the core courses for the minor are two that fulfill university-wide general education requirements: "Asian Pacific American Strategies: Confronting Challenges in the United States" and "Asian Pacific American Cultures in Public Life." Other courses include options that cover literature, film, religion, music, culture, history and politics. Electives also include courses in the Critical Languages Program, which offers study in five relevant languages: Cantonese, Hindi, Tagalog, Thai and Vietnamese.
"I really want to commend the students on campus who have been pushing for this minor for years," Crisman said. "I think the younger generation has been championing an ethos of care, mutuality and joy into their activism, and we've tried to incorporate that sensibility into the minor as well. It's not just going to be standard lecture-based learning, but engagement with one's own identity, with peers and with the broader APA community. And this actually harkens back to the early formation of Asian American studies that was really trying to rethink what education looked like."
The minor joins a group of existing UArizona programs that focus on the study of marginalized and underrepresented groups. Others include Africana studies, American Indian studies, gender and women's studies, and Mexican American studies, all of which address the university strategic plan's third pillar, The Arizona Advantage, which emphasizes driving social, cultural and economic impact by strengthening the university's commitment to diversity and inclusion.
"It's important to recognize that for people from minority or marginalized communities, there's some commonalities of experience as well," Esaki said. "To get solidarity, you have to give solidarity. If you want to be isolated, you can be isolated, but you can't expect others to empathize with you. That's exactly opposite of what we want to do. We want to get our students to understand those other contexts because it's essential."
Kenny Importante, Asian Pacific American Student Affairs director, said the courses that make up the new minor will give students of various backgrounds valuable perspective for their own experiences.
"When they know their history, they're able to share more and encourage others to embrace their own racial and ethnic identity," Importante said.
Albert Welter, head of the Department of East Asian Studies, said the new minor complements the department's existing focus on language and cultural studies of China, Japan and Korea.
"I'm looking forward to the injection of Asian Pacific American studies into the department because it brings a contemporary relevance, not just in terms of international affairs, but also domestic affairs. This brings a whole new rich context to the department," he said. "The Asian Pacific American community at the University of Arizona is quite diverse and broad. The needs of those students in particular have not been well served by not having a program such as this. We're happy that it's finally here, and we're ready to celebrate."
Students interested in more information about program requirements, or who want to declare a minor, should contact the College of Humanities Academic Advising Center at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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