Amherst Asian Alumni Network Argues for the Establishment of an AAPI Studies Major

The Amherst Asian Alumni Network shares testimonies from alumni in support of an AAPI studies major.

Amherst Asian Alumni Network Argues for the Establishment of an AAPI Studies Major
A group of Asian alumni argue that the addition of an AAPI studies major would enrich the college’s academic life. Photo courtesy of the Mead Art Museum/Jiajia Zhang ’22.

In the wake of Amherst Uprising in Fall 2015, many students asked: Why don’t we know more about what it means to be Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI)? Why aren’t there more AAPI studies classes at Amherst? And why don’t we have a greater sense of intellectual community on campus?

A few years later, these same students, now alumni, formed the Amherst Asian Alumni Network (AAAN) with the dual aims of building a greater sense of community among alumni and advocating for AAPI studies at Amherst. We later learned that generations of students had been asking these same questions since the early 1970s. We decided to connect all these voices and become a constant force in supporting students and faculty advocating for an AAPI studies major.

In 2021, the AAAN wrote an open letter calling out Amherst’s lack of commitment to AAPI studies. Over 400 alumni, faculty, and students signed on in agreement, and we received numerous testimonies about how an AAPI studies major would impact students’ experiences at Amherst.

The AAAN stands in full support of establishing the AAPI studies major. Beyond just a few courses, a major would provide the long-term infrastructure, dedicated resources, and institutional recognition for all students to be able to study the history, culture, and lived experiences of AAPIs. The AAAN is committed to harnessing our alumni membership to ensure the sustainability of the program through financial support and career mentorship. In 2023, AAAN members fundraised over $5,000 to establish the Franklin S. Odo Senior Thesis Prize.  Each year, faculty will award this prize to a graduating senior who writes an outstanding thesis in AAPI studies, and this joins the generous donation of Tony Chan ’72. We hope that we can continue to uplift the incredible scholarship that has been produced at Amherst, which will only grow under a new major. Amherst faculty and alumni have been and are becoming leaders in the field of AAPI studies — with a formalized program, Amherst has the opportunity to become a center for AAPI scholarship.

Members of our Network have provided the following testimonials reflecting on what an AAPI studies major would mean to them. (Edited for length and clarity.)

  • The establishment of an AAPI studies major would be an exciting moment for the college. A major will enrich the discourse at the college as a whole. It will provide all students with a more expansive way to read our nation's history, literature, and science, and to engage in our multi-racial democracy. — Arthur Ago ’90
  • I was a history major at Amherst who wrote his thesis on Asian American history, so majoring in AAPI studies would’ve made a lot of academic sense for me. Because there were no Asian American history scholars in the history department, I had to get permissions from both the history and American studies department to have Professor Franklin Odo (who was aligned with the American Studies department) advise my thesis. To gather resources for my thesis, I completed a special topics course on Asian American history, individually networked my way into Asian American organizations to find scholars to interview, and sourced readings on my own. Having an AAPI studies major at Amherst would’ve made it easier for me to conduct my thesis. — Andrew Kim ’18
  • Discovering AAPI studies at Amherst was central to my growth not only as a scholar, but also as a person rigorously engaging with the world. It showed me that my own existence was worthy of being studied and placed in dialogue with the rich experiences of my classmates, and that a better world was possible because of this collaboration. It was an intellectual and social home cobbled together through late night meetings and off campus classes, which were enriching in their own right but also only possible for the few willing to pour in enormous amounts of effort into imagining — and fighting for — the kind of learning we wanted. In other ways, I was just really lucky — major parts of my thesis would not have been possible had it not been for the fact that I happened to be on a student interviewing committee with [Assistant Professor of History and Sexuality, Women's and Gender Studies] Christine Peralta, who offered to provide feedback on my thesis even before it became clear that she would be hired. I was lucky that so many previous generations of students had put in the work to push Amherst to prioritize such a faculty search. Still, I shouldn't need to be lucky to experience the kind of deep, reorienting learning that has influenced so much of how I move through the world post-Amherst. I cannot wait for future Amherst students to have the structure and support to pursue AAPI studies, without any doubt that they deserve to be doing so. — Sabrina Lin ’21
  • The proposal for an [AAPI] studies major at Amherst stands at the vital intersection of intellectual rigor, and student demand, and interest. Far from an exercise in navel-gazing (a tired critique that has been leveled successively against women, queer, Indigenous, and/or POC scholars), [AAPI] studies speak to global and enduring concerns that are of broad interest to every Amherst student regardless of background — including mobility and migration, agency, identity formation, and more. At the same time, the field retains a distinctive focus on experiences of U.S. racism and imperialism that merits recognition as a standalone program and major. The interdisciplinary methodologies of [AAPI] studies align with the best kind of education the college aims to offer: intellectual curiosity and flexibility, paired with the ability to construct incisive arguments based on the close and critical evaluation of sources. For all of these reasons, peer institutions from Williams to Princeton have all recognized the value of offering a major in Asian American studies. This is an opportunity for Amherst not only to join these ranks, but also to lead. When I think of my own experience at Amherst in the early to mid-2000s, I recall a stifling feeling of intellectual scarcity, of not being able to find courses that answered the questions I wished to ask, and of needing to cobble together an inadequate curriculum from limited resources. — Ian Shin ’06, Assistant Professor of History and American Culture, University of Michigan
  • When I was an Amherst student, 1964-1968, there was no “Asian American studies,” not by that name — not at Amherst nor in academia at large. I am of the generation of Asian Americanists who created the field of study by this name, in the 1970s and thereafter. At Amherst, though, I did write several papers drawn from my experience of growing up Asian American in Hawai’i, and as far as I knew, these papers, unusual as they were at the College, were appreciated by my teachers. The AAPI major would at last make space for a curriculum that will allow the intellectual — and yes emotional — history of the academic field to be learned, by students and faculty together. — Stephen H. Sumida ’68, Professor Emeritus of American Ethnic Studies, University of Washington
  • In many ways, an AAPI Studies major did shape my experience — including Five College classes and Special Topics courses, I ended up taking  nine courses total in Asian/Pacific/American Studies and three in Asia/Pacific Studies during my time at Amherst. I went out of my way because Asian American studies was what I came here to do, but I also got lucky because the kind of AAPI Studies I was doing was the kind that many professors in my time, at Amherst and the Five Colleges, were focused on or invested in. A major means more than just maxing out on facts about Asian America. It means knowing the historiography of the field — it means talking about the contextual emergence of Asian American studies as a discipline, its relationship (sometimes complementary, other times imperiled) to sociology, Asia studies, security studies, Third World studies, and ethnic studies. It means learning about the methodological tools unique to, or uniquely poised to serve, our field — that means thinking about Asian American critique, critical minor perspectives, subaltern studies, and orality. In the wake of the major, Amherst has a wonderful opportunity to distinguish itself as a harbinger of one of the first truly comprehensive, methodologically, and theoretically robust, Asian American studies curricula in the nation. — Jiajia Zhang ’22