AAPI Studies Major To Be Considered in a Faculty-Wide Vote After 52 Years of Effort

On May 11, 1972, in a letter to The Student, Asian and Asian American students at Amherst made the first call for an Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies major. 52 years later, the college has finally begun to listen.

On Feb. 13, 2024, the Committee of Educational Policy (CEP) unanimously voted to pass the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Studies Program proposal, which would offer an AAPI studies major, the first time that such a proposal has been formally considered by the CEP in Amherst’s history. Professor of Economics and Chair of the CEP Christopher Kingston wrote a recommendation to the Faculty Executive Committee (FEC) that the proposal move forward:

“The members unanimously agreed that the argument is compelling and well-crafted, with evidence of substantial and sustained student interest in Asian American studies […] We therefore recommend that the FEC bring this matter before the faculty as soon as practicable.”

A week later, on Feb. 19, 2024, the Faculty Executive Committee unanimously concurred. “I know that a program in AAPI studies has long been desired by many students and alumni, and I was pleased to see such a well-developed proposal come forward,” Professor of Mathematics and Head of the FEC Gregory Call said. “With the recent hiring of three faculty in related fields, the proposed program now has sufficient faculty staffing to mount a viable and cohesive curriculum on an ongoing basis.”

Upon hearing the news of these results, students who had long been advocating for an AAPI studies major were overjoyed. For many, this was a long time coming. For others, this was a promise of institutional progress that might allow them or future Amherst students to explore their interests and access the knowledge, support, community, and resources of an AAPI studies major. But the work is not yet finished.

The proposal now sits in its last stage of limbo as it waits to be considered in a faculty-wide vote on March 8. For the first time, enough student and faculty momentum has built up to prompt a formal consideration of the major, which would make Amherst the first small liberal arts college in the country with its own Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies major.

What is the Proposal Advocating for?

The proposal seeks to establish a formal AAPI studies program and major, permanent and integral to Amherst’s curriculum, that will educate its students on a substantial field of academic work on the Asian American and Pacific Islander experience. Curricula will cover Asian American and Pacific Islander history, literature, lived experiences, prejudices, and critiques. The program would be interdisciplinary, spanning economics, English, history, psychology, anthropology, and more.

What Will the Major Look Like?

Like Latinx & Latin American studies (LLAS) and education studies, the college’s most recent majors, AAPI studies will commission a program, not a department, that offers a major and guided thesis opportunity. This means that AAPI studies will not have its own dedicated faculty, but will be a set of courses consistently available to students from faculty across departments, who have expertise and interests in the field.

If passed, the major will consist of nine courses and a capstone project. Students will take two foundational courses, one theory/methods course, one course from either the BLST department, LLAS program, or Indigenous studies program, and one from Asian Languages & Civilizations (ASLC). For the remaining four electives, students may choose between the listed electives or two concentrations: Comparative Race and Indigeneity or Pacific World, Asia, and the Americas, each with their own set of requirements. This structure ensures that students learn the foundational theories and methodologies of the field while leaving room for individual interests.

Core faculty in this program will include Professor of English and Spanish Sony Coráñez Bolton, Professor of American Studies Pawan Dhingra, Professor of Environmental Studies and History Ted Melillo, and Professor of English Nozomi Nakaganeku Saito. Currently, the major has already received endorsements from the American studies, ASLC, Black studies, economics, English, history, LLAS, psychology, and sexuality, women, and gender studies (SWAGS) departments. The proposal currently lists 23 offered courses, incorporated from each department that are relevant to AAPI studies, excluding those promised by the psychology and economics departments or courses that might be created in the future.

What is Driving the Proposal Forward?

Long-standing student interest and advocacy has been the predominant driving force behind an AAPI studies major. The Asian and Pacific American Action Committee (APAAC) and the Amherst Asian Alumni Network (AAAN) were created in the aftermath of the Amherst Uprising in 2015, and have both been vocal and persistent about an expanded curriculum for the past 10 years. Kiko Aebi ’16, on behalf of AAAN, wrote that the network is “very eager to know the results of the faculty vote,” emphasizing that “alumni have been advocating for AAPI studies for decades now.” articles in The Student have been continuously published throughout the decades, demanding more action to promote AAPI representation and course offerings on campus, all of which eventually led to the history and SWAGS cluster hire in 2018 and the English, economics, and psychology cluster hire in 2022.

Demand is partly a result of increasing AAPI demographics within the student body, from 10.9 percent in 2011 to its current 15.2 percent. These trends within Amherst’s community are reflective of larger national patterns, with Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders being the fastest growing minority group.

In the 2021-2022 academic year, the college offered seven courses on AAPI topics with an enrollment of 160 students, a drastic increase from three courses with 35 enrollments in the 2017-2018 academic year. Coráñez Bolton is currently teaching “Asian American and Pacific Poetry and Lyric,” an English course with 18 enrollments. His presence reflects perhaps the greatest change in Amherst’s learning environment since advocacy began — that there are now Amherst faculty who are teaching this area of study.

Student Testimonials: Sources of Interest, Advocacy, Demand, and Input

Interest in AAPI studies manifests itself in many ways—through extensive participation in groups like APAAC, AAAN, ASA, KSA, and CSA, but also through independently created avenues of inquiry and academic study.

In the absence of an organized major, Hibiscus Zhang ’25 has developed his own interdisciplinary major called “Comparative Race, Migration, and Diasporic Feminist Studies in ‘Asian America.’” His major is also organized into five distribution requirements and aims to explore “comparative ethnic studies, diaspora studies, and Asian/American studies, with a particular emphasis on Third World and Asian/American feminisms.”

While Zhang’s passion for AAPI studies began in high school, he only began thinking about building his own major after mounting frustrations and conversations with his advisor, Professor of History and Sexuality, Women’s, and Gender Studies Christine Peralta. Despite taking courses across departments and 5-college campuses, Zhang found that “there is evidently not a single department that encapsulates the full breadth of Asian/American studies.” Rather than feeling supported by the administration, he said that “I’ve had to go out of my way to curate the education that I actually wanted. […] And while I do think these experiences have shaped who I am and only reaffirmed my interests in AAPI studies, it’s not something that I’d want anyone else to go through.”

In addition, there are at least five seniors — Erxi Lu ’24, Jihyun Paik ’24, Mica Nimkarn ’24, Danica Vu ’24, and Stephanie Yang ’24 — that are currently writing AAPI-related theses in various departments. Their stories are unique, but share one overarching theme; that an AAPI studies program would have been vastly beneficial for their academic growth had it been offered earlier on in their college careers.

Mica Nimkarn ’24, a senior member of APAAC and a SWAGS/anthropology double major, maintained that an AAPI studies program would have greatly improved her thesis experience, allowing her “not only to be in conversation with other students thinking about AAPI identity, methods and theories, but also other faculty that could evaluate [her] work through an AAPI studies framework.” Mica emphasized that without Peralta, who was hired in the 2018 cluster hire, “I would not have been able to do my thesis or even think about pursuing AAPI studies in graduate school.”

First-years at the college who might have the chance to declare the major — the first to reap the program’s benefits — are hopeful for the proposal to pass. Hannah Kwon ’27, a freshman in Coráñez Bolton’s poetry course, noted how a program would “introduce so many interdisciplinary perspectives, conversations, and ideas that would benefit the entire student body.”

Faculty Support for AAPI Studies

When interviewing faculty, the predominant sentiment was that students had been expressing interest in AAPI studies for a long time. Professor of Economics Caroline Theoharides, who is leading the economics department’s AAPI cluster hire, noted the abundance of economics majors who had done senior theses in AAPI-related topics, for whom “having that perspective from a faculty member in the department would have been really helpful” and whose inquiries might have developed further “if students had already been able to ask those sorts of questions in a 200 level class.”

Professor of American Studies Victoria Nguyen, who taught “Racial Consciousness and the Asian American Perspective” last semester, had to research and assemble the syllabus on her own. Her goal, she said, was “to offer students a kind of vocabulary to think through, demystify, and contextualize Asian American differences,” something that didn’t openly exist in academic circles, and observed how “willing and eager students were to go along that experimental journey” and “take seriously the critical stature of the Asian American subject.”

Don’t Count Your Chickens Yet: Concerns For the Major

Notably, there are practical considerations in creating new majors, which demand long-term commitments from the college for continuous resources and infrastructure in order to thrive. The proposal addresses these concerns, emphasizing that all faculty for the major are already, or will soon be, hired on the tenure track and teaching relevant courses at Amherst. In addition, the major’s curricular organization is not reliant on any single individual on the faculty, but across many departments, ensuring its sustainability.

One misconception might be that students could pursue their interests through the ASLC department or five college A/P/A Studies Certificate. The proposal highlights, however, that ASLC teaches the ideologies and histories of people in Asia, while AAPI studies concerns the stories of people in America who share a continent of origin. These are, the proposal maintains, markedly different lived experiences. The A/P/A Certificate, on the other hand, while focused on AAPI studies, is not a viable or sustainable option. Few Amherst students take Five College courses or complete consortium certificates, and those that do face the burden of time and transportation.

Another possible concern is that the Amherst curriculum will become more fractured over time, with a proliferation of majors and fewer students in each to create a cohesive and diverse community of scholars. AAPI studies might be thought to take students away from English, history, American studies, etc., who would have otherwise contributed to existing departments.

However, proponents of the major argue that this is not a compelling reason for the school not to cater to student interests. Dhingra maintains that “people should be able to major in the fields that most resonate with their interests” and that “to deny that opportunity because of long-standing departments doesn’t do a service to the students.” Rather, the major requires students to take courses in other disciplines, creating opportunities that “wouldn’t coalesce together otherwise.”

Similarly, Theoharides considers AAPI studies to be “more of a source of collaboration than competition,” one she hopes would actually expand the economics department. “Students might take an intro class as a prerequisite for an AAPI studies course, then learn what economics can actually offer,” which might “incentivize double majors or students to be involved in both departments.”

Ultimately, it is up to the faculty to decide whether there is a demonstrated need for an AAPI studies major on campus. The vote is to be held on March 8, 2024, and an open “Tea Time” will be held on March 4, 2024, from 4-5 p.m. in the Aliki Perrotti and Seth Frank Lyceum’s Center for Humanistic Inquiry (CHI) Think Tank for students, faculty, and staff to ask questions. If the proposal is accepted, this will be a landmark decision in Amherst and higher education’s history, finally recognizing and cementing the role of AAPI students and peoples in the larger academic, political, and economic discourse.

Correction, March 2, 2024: A previous version of this article stated that the CHI Think Tank, where the March 4 “Tea Time” event will be held, was in Frost Library. The CHI Think Tank is actually in the Aliki Perrotti and Seth Frank Lyceum.