Racist attacks revive Asian American studies program demand

As Dartmouth College sophomore Nicholas Sugiarto flipped through the course catalog last semester, two words caught his eye: “Asian American.”

The 19-year-old Chinese Indonesian American didn’t know Asian American-focused classes were even an option at the Hanover, New Hampshire, campus. The biomedical-engineering major ended up enrolling in “Gender and Sexuality in Asian American Literature” and now wishes he could minor in Asian American studies.

“I never realized how long and storied the history of Asians in America has been,” Sugiarto said. “You also hear about stories that just never made the news or never made it into the standard AP U.S. history textbooks.”

That feeling of being seen resonates now more than ever for Asian American and Pacific Islander students and faculty at college campuses around the country. For all the “Stop AAPI Hate” hashtagging, accounts keep emerging of new incidents of Asian Americans being coronavirus scapegoats or made to feel like foreigners in their own country.

Ongoing anti-Asian attacks along with the March massage business shootings in Georgia that left six Asian women dead have provoked national conversations about visibility.

The debate has renewed an appetite at some colleges for Asian American studies programs. As student diversity grows, so does the desire for representation in the syllabus. But qualified professors of color say such programs won’t last if they aren’t being offered permanent decision-making power.

Inspired by his literature class, Sugiarto added his signature to the nearly 1,000 on a petition calling on Dartmouth to establish an Asian American studies major, a challenge that’s been brought to the Ivy League school on and off for four decades.

Sugiarto and his classmates hope this time will be different given recent events.

Eng-Beng Lim, the Dartmouth professor who taught Sugiarto’s class, said the petition gained momentum after the massage business killings, and even fueled discussions with administrators.

Those talks recently stalled, though Lim still described it as a “promising and critical impasse.”

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