Asian-Americans find their community at UM

College Park organizations help build awareness, unity

November 30, 2003|By Stephanie Tracy | Stephanie Tracy,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Melanie Lo went to high school in Alabama and had trouble finding many people who could identify with her experiences as an Asian-American.

Now a student at the University of Maryland, College Park, she had to adjust to living farther north, and to being part of a larger Asian-American community, something she did not have in high school.

"I always felt like the outsider looking into all these other cultures," Lo said. "Coming here to Maryland, I found a lot of different organizations and finally felt like I was part of a community."

Lo is now a member of the Asian-American Student Union and the liaison to the Public Asian campus newspaper.

With a core team of about a dozen students, the Asian-American Student Union works to raise awareness about issues important to Asian-American students on campus. The union encompasses about 25 student groups and organizations, from cultural clubs to fraternities and sororities. In addition to advocacy efforts, the union also works to provide networking and community-building opportunities.

Asian-American students were the largest minority group among all undergraduates at College Park this fall, making up 13.8 percent of undergraduates. Asian-Americans make up 6 percent of all graduate students.

International Education Services director Valerie Woolston said students hailing from countries in Asia and Southeast Asia, including India, Pakistan and the Philippines, have made up the majority of the international student population at College Park for years.

In 2002, Asian students made up 64 percent of the entire international student population of 3,734 students. China and India have long been the top two countries represented in the international community.

Among its recent advocacy efforts, the union drew attention to a group of retailers who were selling Halloween costumes offensive to Asians. The union organized a letter campaign to protest the sale of the costumes, many of which were sold out on the retailers' Web sites.

Amy Yip, vice president of programs for the Asian-American Student Union, said the letter campaign was important because it raised awareness of the offense.

In addition to its advocacy efforts, the Asian-American Student Union also works to unify Asian students of varying cultures and backgrounds.

The union is in the midst of planning its annual Forging, Understanding, Empowering, Leading conference for Feb. 6-7. The conference offers workshops examining a variety of topics, including stereotypes of Asian-Americans in the media, historical topics relating to the Asian- American experience and advice from students and recent graduates about the challenges of being Asian-American in the workplace.

Plans also are under way for the sixth annual All People Are One program scheduled for the spring semester. The event brings together students from different Asian cultures to present an evening of cultural entertainment in the context of their American experience. For example, the students might organize a multicultural fan dance set to American music.

"It's really more the process of it all than the end result," Yip said. "The All People Are One program gives us the chance to work with each other to celebrate our cultural heritage."

Events such as All People Are One have become more important for the Asian-American Student Union in its efforts to address a cultural rift between some segments of the Asian-American student population.

Rosanna Baek, chairwoman of the Asian-American Sisters arm of the student union, said the divide between students from East Asian and Southeast Asian countries develops because students feel they look different or do not consider themselves Asian.

Asian-American students also have the opportunity to learn more about their history and culture through a certificate program.

In 2000, the University of Maryland approved the Asian-American Studies Program, a 21-credit certificate program that equates to an academic minor, aimed at exploring the history, culture and experience of Asians in the United States and the Americas.

More than two-thirds of the students enrolled in the program are Asian-American. Last year, five students graduated with an Asian-American Studies certificate, and the program's director hopes to have 10 graduates this year. Another 50 students are on track to complete the certificate program during the next few years.

Seung-Kyung Kim, director of the program, said many students are introduced to it by taking the basic classes to satisfy their graduation requirements. By increasing the program's entry-level course offerings, Kim hopes to encourage new students to continue toward a certificate.

With extra funding and more resources, Kim and some students would like to see the certificate program offered as an undergraduate major.

"We're at our lowest point in terms of funding right now, and we only have two core faculty members," Kim said. "Without more faculty members dedicated to teaching these courses and the appropriate funding, we can't have a major."

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