A 50-year Fight for Belonging: The History of A/P/A Studies Advocacy at Amherst

The Student investigated the 50-year history of activism for an Asian/Pacific/American studies program at the college, speaking with students, professors, and alumni about their beliefs, activism, and hopes for the future of A/P/A studies on campus.

A 50-year Fight for Belonging: The History of A/P/A Studies Advocacy at Amherst
Original call for Asian American studies in The Amherst Student - May 11, 1972. From Amherst College Archives and Special Collections. Photo courtesy of Karina Maciel '25.

The beginning of May marks the start of Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, a month meant to recognize and honor the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to U.S. history. Understanding these histories and cultures is crucial to understanding the larger history of the United States, and one field that helps with this understanding is Asian/Pacific/American (A/P/A) studies. Calls to establish an A/P/A Studies program at Amherst stretch back at least 50 years — despite this, no unified A/P/A studies program has been created.

Without a formal A/P/A studies program in place, students of Asian American and Pacific Islander descent lack the framework to learn about their own histories and cultures. But recent gains for the movement, such as the approval of an A/P/A studies cluster hire, have helped strengthen student and faculty calls. The Student investigated this 50-year history of activism, speaking with students, professors, and alumni about its significance, and their hopes for the future of A/P/A studies on the Amherst campus.

The Early History of the Movement

The first calls for A/P/A studies at Amherst date back to May 1972, when Asian and Asian American students published a letter in The Student calling on the college to hire faculty in the field of Asian studies and begin “an active recruitment of Asians from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

During the 1980s, Professor of English Barry O’Connell began teaching Amherst’s first Asian American studies classes, focusing on Asian American literature. Over the next few decades, other student groups led the push for A/P/A representation in the Amherst curriculum. The Asian American Studies Committee, for instance, was established in the early 90s, and made its own call for A/P/A studies in a letter published in The Student.

Letter to the editor calling for Asian American studies, published in The Amherst Student - April 3, 1991. Written by Georgette Wong ’91 and other members of the Asian American Studies Committee. From Amherst College Archives and Special Collections. Photo courtesy of Karina Maciel '25.
Article featuring members of the Asian American Studies Committee in The Amherst Student - April 3, 1991. From Amherst College Archives and Special Collections. Photo courtesy of Karina Maciel '25.

Following increased course offerings in A/P/A studies in the 90s, the college hired Professor Jan Lin, an Asian American studies professor, in 1994. However, Lin left the college after three years.

Advocacy from graduate students, staff, visiting professors and tenured faculty members during the 1999-2000 academic year led to the creation of Five College A/P/A Certificate Program. The program was approved by Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and UMass in 2001 — Amherst did not join the program until five years later, following a faculty vote.

The Advocacy Continues

The Amherst Uprising in 2015 sparked a renewed interest in A/P/A studies. The Uprising was a days-long sit-in in Frost Library, led by students who demanded college-wide change regarding the issue of racism on campus. In the aftermath, the Asian American Studies Working group (now known as the Asian American and Pacific American Action Committee [APAAC]) and the Amherst Asian Alumni Network (AAAN) were born. The AAAN in particular was largely influenced by Amherst Uprising, according to members Kiko Aebi ’16, Jenny Li ’16, and Olivia Zheng ’20.

Both Aebi and Li participated in Amherst Uprising, calling it a “formative experience” in fostering solidarity among Asian American students on campus. They stated that Amherst Uprising showed them what student activism could accomplish — and once they graduated, they realized the importance of alumni voices as well.

“The formation of the [AAAN] was a response to this sense among many alumni in our year, especially Asian alumni, that there wasn’t a way to build community and stay in touch, and continue conversations that had been so important and formative to us as students,” Aebi said.

She described a recurring problem with student activism at Amherst, wherein the administration “stonewalls,” waiting for students to graduate instead of hearing out their demands. “[We realized] that as alumni, if we really formed a coalition, and kept the pressure on, the College could no longer play that waiting game.”

Since its creation four years ago, the AAAN has worked alongside APAAC to increase the number of tenure-track A/P/A studies faculty, as well as A/P/A course offerings, at the college. It regularly meets with administration and faculty to promote A/P/A studies, and works to build strong networks of support for Asian American students and alumni. The primary function of the AAAN, according to Aebi and Li, is to “vocally [push] for curricular change.”

The student demands of Amherst Uprising led to the hiring of John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer Franklin Odo, a pioneer in the field of Asian American Studies, as visiting faculty. After his arrival, Odo “instantly doubled” the number of A/P/A studies faculty on campus. “Successive administrations have never seen the necessity of pursuing this in any serious kind of way,” Odo said. “When I arrived in 2015, there was only one person who was doing Asian American studies seriously on the Amherst campus, and that was [Associate] Professor [of American Studies] Robert Hayashi.”

Following the hiring of Professor Odo, extensive student advocacy led to the hiring of other professors specializing in A/P/A studies. Other A/P/A-focused professors on the Amherst campus include Professors Pawan Dhingra and Sony Coráñez-Bolton, who both came to the College in 2018.

Jiajia Zhang ’22, who has been involved with APAAC since her freshman year and served as co-chair her sophomore and junior years, described the advocacy for A/P/A studies professors as grueling and even “disheartening” at times.

“It seems like it wasn’t that much work, but it was so much work,” Zhang said. According to Zhang, APAAC played an extensive role in the hiring process, with members going around to different departments and advocating to each why A/P/A studies and A/P/A faculty were needed. “There was a lot of unpaid labor involved.”

And all this labor sometimes still amounted to nothing. Following the first round of student-led advocacy during Zhang’s freshman year, the hiring request was denied by the Committee for Educational Policy (CEP).  “We did an insane amount of work,” Zhang said, “and [the hiring request] didn’t even pass.”

According to Zhang, one of the reasons this request got denied was because people had trouble understanding the importance of A/P/A studies.

“Oftentimes, people of Asian descent are not looked at as minorities in the same way that other people of color are,” added Associate Professor of American Studies Robert Hayashi. “And I think that led to a failure to recognize the necessity for this area of study.”

The belief that A/P/A studies lack value has deep roots in the world of academia, extending back to the origin of the field in the 1960s. According to Odo, early efforts to establish the field emphasized that its concerns were not otherwise addressed within academia. “Our colleagues didn’t always take very kindly to that, because this was a direct criticism of the fact that the university faculty were not addressing issues that were critical,” Odo said.

Odo noted that this perspective persists today. “People haven’t gotten the message yet. Not all of our colleagues are convinced that this is a legitimate field, and is providing both methodologies and content that we need to become fully educated,” he added.

A second hiring request for a professor specializing in A/P/A studies was approved during Zhang’s sophomore year at Amherst, following persistent advocacy from APAAC and the AAAN. This led to the hiring of Assistant Professor of History and Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies Christine Peralta, who joined the college this past fall.

“[My hiring] came from student interest for sure,” Peralta said. Peralta stated that she specifically wanted a job where there were students who were interested in A/P/A studies, and that students from APAAC who were “really invested in the hire” helped facilitate her interview process.

Anti-Asian Racism Leads to Increased Awareness

The push for an A/P/A program of study has continued to grow in the past few years. Following the Atlanta spa shootings in March of 2021, the APAAC and the ASA held a vigil in honor of the eight victims. This past August, the AAAN wrote an open letter to President Biddy Martin and other members of the administration, calling again for the establishment of an A/P/A studies major amid increasing anti-Asian racism across the US. This increased advocacy led to the recent approval of a cluster hire for three faculty members specializing in A/P/A studies in the departments of economics, psychology, and English.

Both students and faculty believe that the administration was incentivized to pursue the cluster hire by the recent rise in anti-Asian sentiment, partly due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“[Increased anti-Asian racism] has raised a lot of awareness about the necessity of understanding who people of Asian descent are [and] what their role has been in the history of the United States,” stated Hayashi.

Mica Nimkarn ’24, the current junior chair of APAAC, agreed with this connection. “I think that the time that we’re living in and the events [of the past two years] … have helped to expedite the process. There is such a focus on Asian American studies right now, in light of all of the anti-Asian hate that’s been rising.” Nimkarn added that the recent rise in anti-Asian hate, in particular, is “showing the administration that they should really do something … or else it’s going to reflect badly on them.”

However, the hiring of individual A/P/A studies professors into different departments does not necessarily mean that an A/P/A program of study is guaranteed.  “It’s a paradox,” stated Zhang.  “In order to make a major, you have to hire people into other majors. Then they have to come together to make this new major.” According to Zhang, this can be difficult, especially when faculty have existing departmental obligations to fulfill- which is the case for the three new faculty from the recent cluster hire.

Therein lies the conundrum for A/P/A studies at the college, professors and students say. The current process means that both current and new A/P/A faculty are hired into existing departments; they must consolidate on their own to actually establish an A/P/A studies major. Despite there being enough manpower to make this major, the lack of administrative initiation and a sense of direction continues to be a major roadblock.

“We’ve been able to hire Professor Dhingra, Professor Bolton, Professor Peralta — but what are we headed towards?” asked Hayashi. “What’s the ultimate goal? Hiring more people, to me, is fantastic, and they will further grow student interest and awareness among colleagues and administrators of the richness and vitality of the field. But I still don’t see a clear plan, and if we are to create something, I would really like to see it as the product of a really inclusive kind of deep, rich conversation with students, alumni, and faculty.”

“I don’t think anyone is necessarily against [establishing an A/P/A studies major] anymore. Everyone supports the major in principle,” Zhang added. “But without us actively doing advocacy work, the administration needs to actively take steps to have this major be made.”

There is also the issue of timing, as the hiring process for new faculty is long and extensive, and there are no clear end goals in sight.

“The hiring process [for the cluster hire positions] will begin next fall, with the goal of filling the positions by Fall 2024 … that’s a really key date,” said Aebi. “Because there’s the potential that the process could be drawn out longer than that, and that’s sort of unfair. Coordination between the three departments so they don’t end up with very similar candidates [is necessary], and also holding them accountable to this timeline is really important.”

A Deep Importance for Students

Many students emphasized the idea that A/P/A would benefit the campus at large. Interest in this field has been growing from Asian American and non-Asian American students alike, and many believe that having such a program of study on the Amherst campus would be purely beneficial, particularly when it comes to examining the issues Asian American students face on campus.

This sentiment was echoed by Hibiscus Zhang ’25, who stated that the lack of a “formal” A/P/A department is hindering both his and the larger campus’ understanding of Asian American issues. “I’ve been trying to get exposure to the field through different departments that offer [related] courses [instead],” he said. “This semester I’m taking a course called Methods in Asian Studies. Aside from that, my exposure to Asian American studies here and [within] the Five College Consortium in general has been pretty nonexistent.”

Gabby Avena ’25, who took “Asian American History: 1800-Present” with Professor Peralta in the fall, said that the class was very important to her and her classmates. “[What] we learned was a really big reckoning in my self identity,” said Avena. “And beyond that, I think Asian American studies is important for non-Asians to take [as well], and that’s the only way we’re ever going to get an [A/P/A] program.”

“If you’re trying to understand Asian Americans as a monolith … then you are ignoring the divisions that exist and that are shown in the college currently,” Avena added. “Having a broader and deeper understanding of the diversity of Asian America helps you make sense of these different groups and might help them come together more.”

Students have also called for earlier advocates to be credited for their work. “There were so many generations of students that had been fighting [for A/P/A studies], and hearing nothing back, seeing no change, and feeling really discouraged and burnt out,” said Nimkarn. “Things are changing. But it feels like the work hasn’t been acknowledged … and it’s also like, why does it take Asian Americans dying to finally see any change? If the coronavirus didn’t happen, would things have been different?”

As advocacy for the establishment of an A/P/A studies program continues, students, professors, and alumni alike hope that the administration will take greater initiative in the creation of a major, and that the advocacy from all parties will continue.

“[Students and alumni] have so much more power than you realize, when you speak collectively and forcefully about your [future] desires for Amherst,” said Hayashi. “The conversation and the pressure from students and alumni has to be constantly maintained. There has to be pushing for real commitments from the college, not just words … and [then] holding them to that.”

“The building blocks are in place,” added Odo. “I think this current administration has come a long way in the six years that I’ve been here, but we have a ways to go. And I think what I’d like to see is Amherst become a leading light among liberal arts colleges, in terms of promoting and illustrating the ways in which Asian American studies and ethnic studies can help illuminate the path forward for bright undergraduates.”