The Asian American Studies Program celebrated its 25th anniversary last Saturday at The Study at University City.
Saturday's events included opening remarks from School of Arts & Sciences Dean Steven Fluharty, a keynote speech by author Cathy Park Hong, alumni panels, and performances from student groups Penn Masala, Pan-Asian Dance Troupe, and Penn Lions. The anniversary’s theme was “Past, Present, and Future.” In the days leading up to the anniversary, the program hosted a conversation with "Crazy Rich Asians" Director Jon Chu and a film screening of "The Donut King."
During the keynote panel on Saturday, Hong discussed her award-winning memoir "Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning," in which she explores Asian American personhood through personal narratives, historical context, and cultural criticism.
Hong also discussed her opposition to the model minority myth in her daily life and challenges she faces as an Asian American woman.
"I can tell you I have attracted all kinds of wild vituperative behavior from white people because I never play the role of a compliant Asian woman," Hong said during the event.
Asian American Studies senior lecturer Rupa Pillai called attending the celebratory events on Saturday "inspiring," particularly the alumni panels, where graduates of the ASAM program discussed their careers in social justice.
"Not only was it a moment to celebrate the work of ASAM faculty, staff, students and our allies in growing our program, it was an opportunity to learn how our students have utilized the ASAM curriculum in their post-Penn lives," Pillai said.
The event also included a panel exploring the history of the ASAM program led by former ASAM Undergraduate Advisory Board chairs.
College senior and co-Chair of the ASAM UAB Claire Nguyễn helped organize the events on Saturday. For Nguyễn, the panel they moderated with past UAB co-chairs was one of the anniversary's most memorable events.
“It was really cool to see how there is this history of students who really care about this program. And it was a really cool conversation to be a part of,” Nguyễn said. “A lot of the work that the ASAM UAB does falls onto the labor of previous UABs. It’s a lineage of labor, of love.”
Nguyễn also said the program has had a positive impact on her time at Penn both inside and outside of the classroom.
“Academically, ASAM has given me the ability to deepen my analysis of my experiences, to have vocabulary to talk about my experiences, both personally and politically,” Nguyễn said. “Also, the ASAM community is amazing. We’re a family. I sob in that office. I cry-laugh in that office. I’m always full in that office. There’s so much food and love all the time. I think having that type of community has been really important for me.”
Nguyễn also said they are grateful that Penn has an ASAM program, but also emphasized that 25 years is not that long. At 22 years old, Nguyễn said the program is only three years older than she is.
Asian American Studies in the U.S. was largely borne out of a five-month strike on the West Coast in 1968, led by a coalition of student groups called the Third World Liberation Front. The coalition demanded that educational institutions create programs centered around the histories of people of color. In 1969, the first Asian American Studies programs were established at California universities, and it took almost another 30 years for this movement to reach Penn and other schools on the East Coast.
As of 2018, Penn, Cornell University, and Princeton University are the only Ivy League institutions which have independent ASAM minors or minor-equivalent certificates.
“The 25th anniversary of Asian American studies [at Penn] is a significant moment because the program was born out of student protests,” co-Director of the ASAM program Fariha Khan said. “It’s so important for people to understand that Asian American Studies offers the full experience of what it means to be American.”
College sophomore and ASAM UAB co-Chair Jennifer Kang emphasized the evolution of the program through its challenges over the past 25 years. The anniversary is a moment to reflect on ASAM’s growth, Kang said.
Asian American Studies professor David Eng said that anniversaries are revolutions in how they force you to reflect on change.
“The 25th anniversary allows us to celebrate all of our achievements," Eng said. "It allows us to thank all the students and faculty, the administrators and alumni who have fought for these fields, and it gives us a time and a moment to sit down and reflect on what we need for the future.”
Over the past 25 years, the ASAM program has grappled with limited resources and struggled for visibility on-campus. There are only three tenure-track ASAM faculty compared to over 2,400 Asian American and Pacific Islander students at Penn. Eng was previously slated to leave the University in March 2021, citing issues with Penn’s waning support for the ASAM program. His potential departure reignited concerns about institutional support of the program.
Since ASAM is a program instead of a department, it does not have hiring power and instead relies on the School of Arts & Sciences to make hiring decisions, Eng said. Three new hires are expected to join the program in 2022, effectively doubling its size, The Daily Pennsylvanian reported in Sept. 2021.
“I’m grateful to the administration for that support. I wish it had come sooner. But it’s better late than never,” Eng said. “[ASAM has] done so well under such limited resources, and we haven’t had the piece of the pie that we deserve. And I think that’s changing. I really feel that the administration has heard us this time.”
Khan said the new hires will allow ASAM to offer more courses and create a major in Asian American studies — only a minor is currently available. Penn has also created a fundraising plan for Asian American studies.
“We’re very excited about the program’s future. It’s a very bright future. We’re excited to think about Penn Asian American studies being the most robust Asian American studies program in the [Ivy League] and on the East Coast,” Khan said. “In the past 25 years, we’ve had moments of crisis and struggle, but our story is really one of resiliency and optimism.”