Alumni Perspective: We Support the Asian American Initiative

Nafisa Isa ’08, Minh Nguyen ’08,

Beadsie Woo ’86, and Ying Zhang ’07

As proud Davidson alumni, we write in support of the Asian American Initiative, the creation of an interdisciplinary Asian American studies (AAS) program, and deeper support and greater resources for Asian American students. 

We graduated in different decades and had markedly different experiences as Asian Americans at Davidson; however, we all care deeply about how the college adapts to remain a place where exceptional students can continue to learn, debate, serve, and contribute to our diverse society.

Our Impact: Asian Americans at Davidson

In the 1980s, the number of Asian students on campus could be counted on one hand. It never occurred to us to advocate for an affinity group. While on campus, we were supportive of Project 87 — a student-initiated, administration-backed effort to create Black studies courses, hire ten Black professors and one Black dean, and increase the number of enrolled black students to 100. Today, according to Janet Stovall ’85, there are nearly 200 Black students, sixteen Black or multiracial professors, and four Black members of the college’s senior leadership team. This is just one example of the college responding to student needs. Environmental studies, gender and sexuality studies, and Latin American studies are further examples of other interdisciplinary programs that reflect contemporary world views.

In the early 2000s, the number of Asian Americans quadrupled to a few dozen on campus. The Asian Cultural Awareness Association (ACAA) re-chartered to build solidarity and space by and for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI). We became institutional assets to Davidson. We called prospective students for the admissions office to tell them why Davidson would be a great choice, speaking to their potential impact as future service leaders and as trailblazers on a predominantly white campus with few AAPI faces. We enriched student life, organizing the annual Lunar New Year and Diwali celebrations, partnering with other under-represented student groups such as the Muslim Students Association, and brought several vans of students to national Asian American conferences. We objected to and shut down the problematic and racist Ke$ha and Geisha party where, today, photos or videos of a party like that could easily resurface to challenge careers, reminding us the benefits of diversity then and now.

Ying Zhang ’07 grew up in the South, frequently experiencing stereotyping and racism as a norm, which reinforced the feeling of being an “other.” Her experience at Davidson was one of personal growth, introspection, and leaning into the pride of being Asian in America, which was cultivated and supported by ACAA. Ying remembers late night conversations with friends who shared the struggle of being a person of color on a majority white campus, faculty mentorship from role models like Dr. Fuji Lozada and Dr. Helen Cho (both in the Anthropology department), and being active in ACAA, which kept her grounded and allowed her to share her roots and identity with the broader campus.

Lozada supported ACAA as its advisor. He was invaluable as  one of few professors of color who understood what it meant to be Asian American. He served as a sounding board for what actions we wanted to take. He helped us see ourselves and our experiences as normal just by being present on Davidson’s campus. He supported organizing as a vehicle for change, one we are seeing now through the Asian American Initiative.

Our charge for Davidson: Asian American Studies, More Resources 

Having an AAS program at Davidson is a stepping stone towards increasing the visibility of Asian American history and the current issues faced by our communities. An AAS program would reinforce a social and institutional commitment to Asian American students on campus.

More students would have the opportunity to know how the single racial category of AAPI unites us and how it masks the rich and diverse histories, conflicts, languages, religions, economies, arts, and cuisines. Furthermore, students could understand the importance of both, finally revealing the invisible challenges and disparities that many Asian Americans face.

For example, while overall graduation rates for AAPI students are among the highest in the U.S., only 38% of Hmong have high school diplomas. Furthermore, poverty among specific subgroups of Asian Americans far exceed the national rate (12.3%), according to the Urban Institute’s reporting on economic disparities among Asian Americans. AAS has the power to reveal these complexities through the study of intersectional topics like poverty, migration, refugee narratives, and intergenerational trauma that are so often collapsed under a single label, or worse, the stereotype of “model minority.” Without these nuances, how do we all garner needed resources to address such complex social challenges?

An inclusive campus means creating community and being intentional about the needs of distinct groups. At Davidson, this can take form in hiring Asian American faculty, staff, and administrators, like Lozada and Cho, and connecting students to AAPI alumni to provide guidance, mentorship, and support. Seeing people who look like us in positions of leadership, scholarship, and community engagement sends strong messages about what is possible and reinforces Davidson’s commitment to inclusion and diversity on every level.  

Our histories (whether shared or personal), cultures, and traditions shape us, our views, and our interactions with others. Our identities are rooted in these heritages and allow us to feel a sense of belonging. A program in AAS offers all Davidson students the opportunity to learn and understand the AAPI narratives in America. 

Our years at Davidson launched us into lives of meaning. We are proud of the many ways that the school has grown and changed since we were students, but there is more to be done. We stand with the Asian American Initiative as it seeks to push Davidson to do more to reflect all of America. As the U.S. population grows more diverse, we all have much to gain as we learn about and celebrate our differences and similarities. 

Nafisa Isa ’08 can be contacted at nafisa.isa@gmail.com. Minh Nguyen ’08 can be contacted at howdy@minhhh.com. Beadsie Woo ’86 can be contacted at beadsie@gmail.com. Ying Zhang ’07 can be contacted at yingaling5885@gmail.com.

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