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Mentorship Program Empowers Asian-American Students at Penn

University of Pennsylvania student Joanna Wu recalls this invitation shortly before her freshman year: Would she like an Asian-American upperclassman mentor? “The overachiever in me was trying to get ahead academically,” Wu says with a laugh.

 But what she discovered – once she was admitted into one of the signature programs of Penn’s Pan-Asian American Community House (PAACH) – was a cornucopia of opportunities for personal growth, leadership training and ethnic-identity exploration.

 “My mentor was impressive,” says Wu, a 20-year-old junior majoring in biology with minors in chemistry and Asian-American studies. “She influenced me to become more of a leader myself. She helped organize conferences that brought thousands of people to campus. I saw how I could make an impact too.”

 Since its inception in 2000, PAACH’S education mission has bridged Asian-American studies to student life. PAACH initiatives have helped spread Asian-American diaspora to thousands of Penn students. They have also helped students determine for themselves what it means to be a bicultural person of Asian descent, how to navigate around the model-minority myth and how to break through the so-called bamboo ceiling.

 The two main PAACH programs are Promoting Enriching Experiences and Relationships (PEER) mentoring, in which Wu now oversees freshman-service projects, and the Asian Pacific American Leadership Initiative (APALI). They’re open to all Penn students and no fees are charged, but students must apply and admission isn’t guaranteed. Enrollment is capped to ensure personal attention. Both programs feature frequent group activities, mandatory-attendance requirements and a menu of provocative discussion topics such as gender stereotypes and affirmative action.

 Yet so many students desire admission each year that there is often a waiting list, says PAACH director Dr. June Chu. A waiting list for time-consuming, voluntary endeavors that don’t offer course credit? Why? “They learn things they might not otherwise anywhere else,” Chu says. “They want to empower themselves.”

Certainly, ethnic resource centers on college campuses are nothing new. PAACH is typical of its counterparts everywhere in offering young adults a home away from home. Chu and two other staff members provide ad hoc advice to students on everything from academics to how to solve problems with parents. Every fall semester, students, who aren’t necessarily in APALI or PEER, organize campuswide events and activities for Asian Pacific American Heritage Week, such as fashion shows and celebrity-speaking engagements.   

 With Asians comprising about 16 and 9 percent of Penn’s undergraduates and graduate students, respectively, the primary constituency of PAACH is sizable. The most heavily involved students among PAACH participants are U.S. born, Chu says. Indian Americans, Chinese Americans and Filipino Americans are perhaps most numerous, but plenty of smaller subgroups such as Pacific Islanders and Bengalis are present as well. Students like Wu say PAACH programs instill more confidence into them, shaping their voices as changemakers. Some say they never considered running for office before going through APALI or PEER.

Chu estimates APALI graduates make up at least 70 percent of all Asian-American students in leadership roles at Penn, having served in positions like chair of the Undergraduate Assembly, editors of the Daily Pennsylvanian student newspaper and board members of the Student Federal Credit Union. With support from Chu and her staff, PEER and APALI are each led by student facilitators who have been through that particular program themselves. 

In 2008, Asian students had a direct hand in keeping alive Penn’s small but vibrant Asian-American studies program when it faced a proposed budget cut that would have effectively killed it. Students circulated petitions throughout campus and alumni networks. In 24 hours, nearly 2,000 petition signatures were collected. Students delivered them to Penn administrators, along with letters stating they would hold a protest rally unless the budget cut was reconsidered.A few hours before the scheduled protest, Penn officials agreed to reverse the cut.

 “I was really proud of our students,” Chu says. “They really galvanized. I don’t think they would have responded so swiftly if they hadn’t gotten so much out of APALI and PEER.” Alumni have supported PEER and APALI by lending themselves as career advisers and making financial gifts. This year, an alum’s $100,000 gift established an endowment in support of PEER. Expenses for PEER and APALI include off-campus lodging at retreats and transportation to and from community-service projects.

 Wu says even as a student, she feels obliged to give back to PEER, and, in doing so, to PAACH.  “It’s a solid introduction to Asian-American issues. And we’re a little family.”

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