By Yvonne Lim Wilson
There’s a dramatic story behind the creation of the Center for Asian American Studies at UT Austin. In the Spring of 1999 ten students were arrested during a protest regarding the future director for the Center for Asian American Studies.
The arrests were not the beginning or the end of the struggle for the Center, but they were the most visible demonstration of student commitment to the cause.
“It was seen as something marginal and radical, but we were asking for more education, something we were paying for. It’s not that radical,” said Marian Yalini Thambynayagam, a student involved in the 1999 protests.
Talks of such a Center began in the 1980s, and in 2000 the Center For Asian American Studies (CAAS) was created. In just ten short years, the Center has grown and currently boasts nine core faculty. In April, CAAS hosted the annual Association for Asian American Studies National Conference bringing in top scholars throughout the nation to Austin.
The Center, which offers an interdisciplinary academic program with a major, a minor and honors program, differs from a traditional academic department in its reach beyond campus. CAAS holds public events promoting understanding of Asian American culture and traditions, as well as performing outreach into the larger Asian American community.
“Part of our mission is also to foster collaborations between the university and community groups. So far, UT has not fully developed these relationships but programs such as CAAS have been working on building partnerships,” wrote Center Director Madeline Hsu.
With the University under financial strain, all units have been instructed to prepare for budget cuts, do more with less and increase fundraising efforts. An announcement from the Dean about the future of each Center is expected at the end of the month.
CAAS has already lost funding for its Program Coordinator position, leaving only one staff member, severely limiting outreach and fundraising efforts; a Vietnamese language class was cut in the Spring.
Some fear the worst for the Center, which is the newest of all ethnic centers at UT and most vulnerable since it has little fundraising experience, compared to the more established ethnic studies centers.
An added challenge for the Center, is that Center Director Hsu is on leave this semester, placing full responsibility on Interim Director Lok Siu.
Siu emphasized that the budget crises affects everyone on campus, not just the Center. The goals of the Center are high and remain so.
“We want to be a major research hub focusing on Asians in Texas and the American South,” Siu said.
Asian Americans are the fastest growing minority group, but one of the least studied. Centers like CAAS at UT stand to play an important role in generating research and creating the community connections that will help us better understand and work with this rising demographic.
“The growing population of Asian Americans in Texas should be reflected not only in the student population, faculty, staff, and administration of UT but also in the intellectual projects and perspectives taught and researched,” Hsu wrote. “We hope the ongoing project of integrating Asian American studies and communities into this university will continue as a means of preparing all UT students to be active subjects in Texas of the twenty-first century.”
Jaya Soni, a doctoral sociology student, credits CAAS for the successes she has earned in her academic career.
“The Center for Asian American Studies has been really responsible for my personal growth and career trajectory,” said Soni, who worked as a teaching assistant through CAAS. “Seeing people like Madeline [Hsu] is a huge inspiration, and its inspiring to see how far the program has gone.”
Debbie Chen, a UT graduate and student activist in the late 1980s, spoke out at the UT-10 discussion during the Association for Asian American Studies National Conference, encouraging others to show their support for Asian American Studies.
“If you’re a student now and have the benefit of going to an Asian American studies course, encourage others to register for a course. Don’t let them push those departments into a cubby hole space … they need a proper space to grow,” she said. “It was a really long struggle to get where they are. Don’t let them use budget cuts as an excuse.”
For now, all eyes are on the University administrators and the decisions they will announce over the coming months. To help CAAS achieve its long-term goals, Siu advised people wanting to help to attend events, propose collaborative projects, help fundraise and donate to CAAS. For more information, visit www.utexas.edu/cola/centers/aas
Originally published September 2010