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UMass Boston’s Asian American Studies Program Takes a Practical Approach

For many educators, large numbers of graduates are not only a bragging right but a goal. But those involved in the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston are quite comfortable producing only one or two graduates annually — despite boasting one of the largest programs of its kind among New England schools.

UMass Boston faculty don’t encourage many students to major in Asian American studies. Instead, students typically delve into Asian topics alongside a major such as nursing, management or criminal justice. Why?

Faculty want students to earn degrees leading directly to careers. Like ethnic studies programs everywhere, a bachelor’s in Asian American studies often leads to graduate school.

“So many of our students are working class, they need to be practical and support their families,” says Dr. Peter Kiang, a professor of education and director of the UMass Boston Asian American Studies Program. “We want our program to complement engineering or accounting or any other career.”

Adds Dr. Elora Chowdhury, assistant professor of women’s studies: “That vision holds everyone on faculty together.”

In 2006, more than half of all 12,000 UMass Boston students were first-generation college-goers, and 63 percent had transferred from elsewhere. More than half the undergraduates were older than 22.

Typically, students juggled classes alongside family obligations and at least one job. Asian Americans were no exception at the urban, commuter UMass Boston.

Consequently, Chowdhury, Kiang and 27 other faculty touch as many students as possible through the 27 Asian American courses. The program’s size and scope rival those of some West Coast universities. Non-Asians make up more than 20 percent of students taking classes in UMass Boston’s program. Courses are as varied as “Asian American Psychology,” “Indian Cinema” and “Asian American Politics and Social Movements.”

Even if UMass Boston students take only one of the 27 courses, Kiang says, he hopes it not only improves their understanding of ethnicity but also hones their critical thinking skills.


Battling Preconceptions

Faculty concede the scarcity of majors in Asian American studies reflects the lack of familiarity that Asian immigrant families have with the academic field and its related professional opportunities. And, skepticism can be contagious. The academic program’s campus-based sister, the Institute for Asian American Studies, often battles preconceptions from potential funders that its research of local ethnic communities has already been undertaken, says Dr. Paul Watanabe, IAAS director.

That’s nonsense, says Dr. Gary Orfield, who co-directs the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at the University of California, Los Angeles. He calls the IAAS “an invaluable partner in thinking through Asian issues.” When CRP was based at Harvard University, it collaborated with IAAS multiple times. Because IAAS provides little-known statistics on Asian American demographic trends, education attainment and family poverty rates in the Boston area, it helps dispel myths among policymakers that Asians are uniformly rich and well educated, Orfield says.

Some recent UMass Boston graduates active in Asian American studies have said they learned more there about history and contemporary issues than they thought possible, given their working-class upbringing and limited learning opportunities.

Two of them offered written testimonials at a graduation celebration last May. Dang Huynh, an economics major, emigrated from Vietnam when he was 4 years old. He was the first in his immediate family to graduate from a U.S. college. Judy Mai, a double major in sociology and criminal justice, was born and raised in Boston to Vietnamese refugees. Huynh and Mai each finished a six-course program of study in Asian American studies, the equivalent of a minor. About 10 students do the same annually, Kiang says, adding he and others encourage many students considering the 10-course major to instead try the minor program.

Many alumni show their gratitude to and affirmation of UMass Boston’s Asian American studies program through their donations. Sometimes, they’re paper bags of cash collected from individuals at Boston’s Asian churches, temples and community centers. Such donations helped finance a series of three student trips to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina struck. Since 2006, UMass Boston students, including Mai, have helped Gulf Coast Vietnamese rebuild homes and businesses. They also filmed a documentary.

Locally, UMass Boston students, faculty and the IAAS have no shortage of populations to work with or to study. Census figures show 16 Asian subgroups in the Boston area. The Vietnamese neighborhood, about a mile from campus, is among the five largest in the country, according to the IAAS. A nearby population of Cambodians is second largest nationally. Both communities emerged in Boston after tens of thousands of people fled Southeast Asia and communism in the mid-1970s. All the while, Boston has boasted a Chinatown that is now 130 years old.

Because many of UMass Boston’s Asian American students live in these communities, faculty encourage them to take activist roles.

Andrew Leong, an associate professor in UMass Boston’s College of Public and Community Service, occasionally lets students substitute writing assignments with helping local activists prepare for events. Through chores like making protest signs, students learn the reasons for protesting. Some students end up joining demonstrators, Leong says. “Once, they jumped in with some elderly Chinese who were rallying against a condo development. This, in heavy rain.”

Leong, who teaches “Asian Americans and the Law,” is also the longtime chairman of a preservation group, Campaign to Protect Chinatown. The group successfully blocked construction of a proposed parking garage by repeatedly protesting, lobbying government officials and drawing media attention.

Back in the classroom, ethnic interplay grows increasingly common. In the “Southeast Asians in the U.S.” course, students of Rwandan or Liberian descent are prone to supplement lectures about refugees and resettlement with impromptu stories of their own escapes from war and persecution, Kiang says. “There’s a lot of crying in class. The bonds that form among students run deep.”

Like any program, UMass Boston’s Asian American studies has a wish list, and the hiring of more full-time faculty with Southeast Asian roots is high on that list. Kiang knows of only one full-time Vietnamese faculty member in the entire university.

That UMass Boston’s program is larger than so many of its neighbors is no tiny feat considering some of their budgets and endowments. Course catalogs for Amherst College, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology each list fewer than 10 courses on Asian American people, diaspora and contemporary life.

UMass Boston has no department or full-time faculty dedicated to Asian American studies. Instead, faculty across many disciplines tack Asian American classes onto their teaching loads, which often run higher than their private university peers.

Why bother? Or, why not move a few miles and start a new program?

Leong test-drove that notion one semester at Tufts University. As adjunct faculty, he taught his law course. He quickly noticed “students there were more privileged than U-Mass students.” Leong says he feels more compelled to teach at UMass Boston for this reason and because it allows him to teach both law and Asian American studies courses.

He adds, “Here, I know I’m making a difference.”

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