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Asian American Studies Now
A Growing Field at UConn
October 18, 1999

It was a low point in the University's history when, in 1987, some white male students spat on a couple of Asian American female students. But just over a decade later, a flourishing and steadily growing program in Asian American studies is a testament to the determination of faculty, students and administrators not to let racism triumph.

In the 1980s, the University offered some courses about Asia, but there was little or nothing on Asians in America. After several years of advocacy by groups of faculty and students, in 1993 the University established both an Asian American Cultural Center and an Asian American Studies Institute. "We were born as a result of the tensions," says Roger Buckley, director of the Institute.

The Asian American movement started in California in the 1960s, says Buckley, at about the same time many black studies programs were launched. To this day, the majority of Asian American studies programs are on the west coast. During the 1990s, however, such programs have also sprung up elsewhere. In the Northeast, for example, there are now programs at NYU, Cornell, and UMass-Boston, as well as UConn.

Buckley says the growing number of Asian American students on many campuses has made a difference. "They are now the largest minority group," he says. "A major force in creating these programs is the students."

Fostering Awareness
At UConn, both the Center and the Institute are based on the belief that more knowledge of Asian Americans would help prevent racial incidents in the future, says Buckley, a professor of history. "We aim to broaden the horizons of students."

The Cultural Center has sponsored an impressive array of cultural programs that have raised awareness of Asian American culture. The focus of the Institute has been in the classroom. Yet from their inception, the two have worked closely together. "It's an artificial divide, cultural and academic," says Buckley.

From the start, the mission of the Institute has been to address the experience of Asians in America. The study of Asia also falls under the Institute's purview because, he says, "Asia informs the Asian American experience."

The term "Asian American" includes a variety of different ethnic groups, including people whose roots are in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, India, and Pakistan.

The program was designed not only to embrace many cultures but also to be as multidisciplinary as possible, including liberal arts disciplines such as English, geography, history, and sociology, as well as other schools, such as allied health.

The first couple of years were rocky, says Buckley. The Institute invited guest lecturers, launched a newsletter, and sponsored a national conference, but initially no faculty positions were authorized. "A couple of us were teaching area studies courses on Asia, but there were no Asian American core courses," Buckley says. "The guts of any program is faculty."

That changed in 1997, when the Institute made not one but two appointments: Karen Chow, who holds a joint appointment in English, and Wei Li, whose position is shared with the geography department.

Each is a joint appointment. "What's nice about being in the Institute is that I feel like I have been able to bring together these two different entities on campus, the English department and Asian American Studies," says Chow. "It's a good working interaction."

In spring 1999, Bandana Purkayastha was appointed to the Institute and the sociology department, and this fall, Usha Palaniswamy joined the faculty as a visiting professor in the Institute and the School of Allied Health.

"We're really institutionalizing the Asian American presence through hiring," says Buckley. "It's a small but systemic change. We're putting in faculty lines. You can't get any more institutionalized than that."

A Range of Courses
The Institute now offers a total of 13 courses, and is working to establish a minor in Asian American studies. In the future, says Buckley, it hopes to establish a major too.

For some students, the Asian American studies classes have been an eye opener.

Gregory Mackin, an eighth semester double major in English and history, started with a course on "Asian American Experiences in the U.S., 1850 to the Present," taught by Guanhua Wang, an assistant professor of history.

"It was something I knew nothing about," Mackin says. "I was looking for an American history class to fulfill the requirement. This was one of those courses where I said 'now let's see what this is about.'"

The eastern Connecticut town of Griswold where Mackin grew up is very homogeneous. Wang's class "helped me focus on what it means to be an American," he says. He went on to take a number of other Asian American studies classes, including an independent study for which he wrote about Asian American students in Storrs.

Vikram Shenoy, who graduated last December with a bachelor of general studies degree, also took several Asian American Studies classes, which helped him understand his heritage as an American of Indian origin. "My whole perspective changed," he says.

One of the biggest hurdles Asian Americans face, Buckley says, is to be identified as Americans. "There's this notion of their being alien," he says, "yet some groups have been here in fairly large numbers since the late 19th century."

"When I came into the class I was kind of isolated," says Shenoy, the only Asian American in his high school class in Stafford Springs. "Yet when I read the literature, I found that many communities share what I and my parents went through." His Asian American classes inspired him to study several other cultures and ethnic groups, taking courses in African American Studies, Mexican American culture and the anthropology of the Caribbean.

Carving a Niche
The Institute has carved out a niche for itself in three areas. The first is a focus on Japanese Americans' internment in camps during World War II. Paradoxically, says Buckley, the U.S. Army's 442nd regiment, recruited from these camps, became the most decorated unit in the history of the army.

As a military historian, Buckley was fascinated by the question of loyalty. "Despite the hardships, Japanese Americans were willing to go off and fight for this country. It was still their country."

Moreover, he says, "this University had a great track record. It took in Japanese Americans during the war and they have tremendously fond memories of UConn. They talk about the wonderful reception they got from the University and the community."

The Institute also has brought the papers and music of Fred Ho to the University's archives. "Fred Ho is the dean of Asian American jazz," says Buckley. "He saw the Institute as something serious, that would preserve and protect and utilize his collection." To encourage students to use the collection, the Institute has established a prize for an essay or art work inspired by its contents. The first two awards are to be presented this week.

The Institute's third specialty is to document the Asian American community in Connecticut. Its first research paper, published in 1997, was a demographic study of Asians in Connecticut. The second publication in the series, Asian Indians in Connecticut, came out last month.

The Institute also has sponsored three major conferences, including last year's international conference on the Indian writer, Rabindranath Tagore, which drew more than 500 participants from 6 countries.

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu