Vanderbilt Asian American Studies Initiative campaigns to bring Asian American Studies programs to campus

Members of the Vanderbilt Asian American Studies Initiative share their progress so far, what they hope this will mean for campus and what students can do to pressure administration.


Emery Little

(Hustler Multimedia/Emery Little)

Cole Sullivan

The Vanderbilt Asian American Studies Initiative (AASI) has recently started a campaign to bring Asian American Studies programs to campus. I talked with two members, Linken Lam (MEd ‘22) and Jack Mok (‘22), responsible for the effort to learn more about the vision for the program and what they hope to accomplish.

Lam is currently working towards a Masters of Education in School Counseling, as a part of Peabody College. He works on AASI’s external team, conducting research and reaching out to community members from Asian American Studies departments across the country to build events for Vanderbilt students. Mok is majoring in Political Science and Economics, with a minor in History. He works alongside Lam on the external team and is currently working to foster publicity for the initiative.


The Hustler: In your work reaching out to other universities, what has impressed you in regards to strong Asian American Studies (AAS) programs?


Linken Lam: I graduated from UC Berkeley and minored in Asian American Studies, so my research centered around those surrounding universities where the ethnic studies movement started. Both schools still have very strong Asian American Studies departments now, offering 50 plus courses, with a major and minor available. One student did a lot of work with UPenn because she went there so I’ve heard they have a strong program there as well.

Jack Mok: Personally, it wasn’t that I was impressed by individual programs. The lack of specific strong Asian American Studies programs was less striking to me compared to the lengths that students went to in order to start them. I spoke to a recent Vassar graduate who spearheaded their AAS movement, and they put in a lot of work that informed our current efforts. For example, they ran a media campaign on Instagram and printed out posters that gave a sense of urgency.


Now that you’ve seen those other campuses, what are you hoping to accomplish and what are you hoping to get out of these meetings that you want to have with administration?


JM:  The three specific changes that we call for in our statement is for Vanderbilt to establish both a graduate and undergraduate Asian American Diaspora Studies Center and program.The second one is providing faculty lines for Asian Studies and other departments to hire faculty with Asian American and Asian Diaspora experience. Third, we want to develop an Asian American network of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and alumni.

LL: The dean’s office notified the Asian Studies department that they’re authorized to seek out a temporary assistant position for an Asian American Studies professor. I think the department is currently intending to apply for two tenure track positions.

The dean’s office notified the Asian Studies department that they’re authorized to seek out a temporary assistant position for an Asian American Studies professor.

JM: Per Dr. Franklin Ellis from the Office of Inclusive Excellence, Vanderbilt’s answer is yes. But it takes time, so the result might be a lesser version than what we ultimately hope to achieve. However, we are grateful that the administration is listening to the voice of the student body and finally establishing a formal space in the institution for Asian Americans.


What are examples of classes or programs that would be offered? What would they be like?


LL: At Berkeley, there was a general Asian American history introductory requirement class for the major. Deeper program electives included Chinese American history, Korean American history, et cetera. Classes on literature and different kinds of media, and television ought to be included. We also suggest a lot of socio-political courses, like law, education and healthcare. The Asian American law class would teach historical legislation that has affected Asian Americans. Recently, a lot of that would be more local legislation within Tennessee and then some examples of national legislation, but there’s not a ton of that that’s net positive historically, the examples of legislation have mostly been discriminatory and harmful to our communities.


How will the studies program affect the larger campus culture?

JM: When I was younger, my wrestling teammate asked me, “Hey, how do I talk to Asian girls?” To which I replied, “We’re not visitors from another planet, you can just talk to us normally.” He’s a pretty open-minded guy, it’s just that he had come from a really rural area in Virginia. He didn’t really know a lot of people of color, and coming to my school in New York with that much diversity was a culture shock for him. I feel like it’s the same scenario for Vanderbilt, because while Vanderbilt does a decent job at recruiting people and building a diverse class, I think it’s critical to take the next step and make sure that you create an inclusive environment by including a studies program reflective of about a fifth of the student population. Even taking one intro class or a tangentially related class to Asian American history or issues will help you understand the struggles of another person and subsequently interact and engage with them better.

LL: It’s all about exposure. Hate and the crimes and offenses have picked up because of ignorance. Exposure and education is the best way to combat that, whether it’s through educational courses or just through exposure to other people that are different from me. I didn’t intend to do an Asian American Studies minor, I just needed a breadth class to meet graduation requirements. That class was a jumping-off point for further exploring my culture and my history. That’s true for people who do the major, that’s true for people who just take a class because they’re interested in the topic or even just people who are taking it because their friends are in it. The classes can only help to actively combat the ignorance that’s behind a lot of the crimes, the attacks and the rhetoric that has been floating around the country for the past year.


When did this initiative first become an idea?

JM: A senior Iris Kim, who recently wrote an article for the Hustler, told me she had been feeling this way for years. She felt that Vanderbilt was lacking, and it was true. Compared to other top schools, we don’t have any offerings in regards to Asian American Studies. It’s been that way since I got here as a first-year and since she got here as a first-year. It had been an idea festering in her mind that she didn’t really start to act on until now, which in my opinion is really cool. Usually seniors take off like it’s too late or they’re too old and they’ll have to hand off to someone else, but she’s still doing it right now, as a senior with eight weeks left to go. She got me on board with Linken and other grad students, which was really impressive to me because normally you only interact with undergraduates on projects like this.


You’ve talked a bit about exposure and making sure people just had a chance to be exposed to these classes and these programs. Do you ever feel like exposure to different groups of people is a problem on Vanderbilt’s campus?


JM: I’ve been here for three years and that’s definitely a problem, but it’s hard to fix. For a lot of people, when they first come to campus, it might be the first time they’ve ever interacted with someone who’s also their ethnicity and color. So naturally, they want to engage with that community. One person described it to me, as they “fall into a dream” and they don’t wake up out of it. You start to interact only with one particular race or ethnicity and then you get trapped in that bubble, and it’s hard to break out. It’s not always intentional. A lot of it happens subconsciously. You just happen to make a lot of Asian friends and don’t think about it. One day you wake up and you’re like, where did all my other friends go? That’s why I’ve been making an intentional effort to meet new people.

One person described it to me, as they just “fall into a dream” and they don’t wake up out of it. You start to interact only with one particular race or ethnicity and then you get trapped in that bubble and it’s hard to break out.

LL: I think it can definitely be a great way to get exposure to not just other Asian people. My senior year, I took a class about race relations between African Americans and Asian Americans. It focused on the intersection of both minorities and our position within America. It wasn’t just Asian students, but a lot of other students which led to a lot of discussion about what it’s like to be a minority in the U.S. in different, adjacent, yet sometimes conflicting communities. 

Going back to the point about graduate experience, there’s not a lot of organizations for Asian American Vandy graduate students, that’s why I sought community amongst the undergraduate Asian American Student Association. It’s pretty unusual for that to happen. It’s different at Vanderbilt than at my undergrad because I think about my race more consciously. I didn’t have to as an undergraduate, I went to a campus that was 40 percent Asian and 38 percent white. I didn’t need to join an Asian American Student Association, because most of my friends were Asian. I didn’t need to seek out resources for support for community building because I had it by default. Coming to Vanderbilt has been a culture shock.


What are the next steps for students, as well as for administration and what can the Vanderbilt community and student body do to help?


LL: We’re working to bring a lecture series to campus, whether that’s contained within one or multiple weeks depending on speaker availability. For students who have not signed the statement, please sign our statement. Our socials will be actively updated when we present our speaker series with, hopefully, faculty members involved in other Asian American Studies programs and alumni of other universities’ programs who do work within the community space. 

JM: I think the core action item that will be simplest is just sign the statement and repost it on social media. A lot of people are fatigued. They’ve been shocked by the events of the summer. They want to do something, but they’re very tired. Activism requires sacrifice, time, labor and energy, so we just ask that people engage in the ways that they feel most comfortable and willing to do. For a lot of people that stops and ends at signing the statement and sharing it. That’s totally fine for us. We just want to keep putting the pressure on Vanderbilt, though, because they’ve promised us something, and we don’t want them to pull back once we all graduate and forget about it since we’re gone. That’s my biggest fear.

We just want to keep putting the pressure on Vanderbilt, though, because they’ve promised us something, and we don’t want them to pull back once we all graduate and forget about it since we’re gone. That’s my biggest fear.

LL: The very cynical part of me feels like a big impetus behind their decision to concede to some of our demands has been the attacks in Atlanta, and we’re trying to maintain the momentum from this so that it’s not just a PR decision. We want to keep the push going and really try to draw some positives from the tragedy and from the events that have happened over the past year.


This article has been edited for brevity and clarity.