The Importance of the ASA

Exactly one year ago, I found myself sitting on the sofa in the Multicultural Resource Center, sitting among other members of the Asian Students Association. I was unsettled by the natural discomfort of occupying a space filled with unfamiliar faces, yet struck by how comfortable I felt in a room with no one I knew.

I never thought that I would end up sitting among these seven other students I had never met before. I did not stumble upon the club at the “Get Involved Fair” on the quad and I did not have any other friends who even knew ASA existed. How did I end up in a space that would soon feel like home? Word of mouth, of course. I heard that ASA had been revived by a senior after years of inactivity and I thought, “why not just go to one meeting?” That one meeting turned into a year of involvement in one of my most beloved clubs on campus.

So at that one meeting, I was surrounded by students that I can count on my fingers. There weren’t too many of us there, but that was to be expected. Just by walking around campus during the first few weeks of school, I deeply felt the lack of community among Asian and Asian American students. If Amherst is lauded as being such a diverse institution, why didn’t I see people or even feel connected to people who look like me? This recurring thought throughout my first weeks in college shattered my anticipation for a strong Asian and Asian American presence.

I walked into the MRC to find that the meeting was just about to begin. There were about seven other students sitting on the warm gray sofa, a sofa so instrumental in fostering an intimate group setting. As soon as I sat down, I was met with the beaming rays of positivity and excitement by the one and only, Rachel Nghe ’16. Rachel was instrumental in reviving ASA after years of its inactivity. There were only a handful of students at this meeting, and I entered the space with little to no expectations, but I never counted down a single minute at that meeting. I sat around in solidarity with other students who voiced concerns similar to mine. The discussion topic of the night dealt with self-segregation and how that relates to the Asian and Asian American experience at Amherst. Many comments made during that night echoed some of my observations on campus: That there is no cohesive Asian and Asian American community, there is barely any pride for Asian heritage in the general student body, that there is a lot of internalized self-hatred that may contribute to the lack of cohesiveness in the Asian and Asian American student body and most importantly, that something needs to be done to change the status quo.
I held onto an assumption that every ASA meeting moving forward would comprise of the same seven or eight people with different discussion topics every time. But after Amherst Uprising, the future of ASA became larger and brighter than ever before.

The Amherst Uprising movement demanded that the administration make concrete changes to better serve the needs of students of color. Many Amherst Asian and Asian American students came together for the first time to discuss how Amherst, the institution, can improve their experience on campus with more diverse Asian studies and Asian American studies courses and hiring of more faculty members who can teach these courses and facilitate a better understanding of Asian heritage. This political activism by Asian students is one that has been lacking for a long time, but is being catapulted by the sudden need for visibility and voice.   In a conversation with Nghe about Asian and Asian American voices during Amherst Uprising, she reflected and said, “…the terms “students of color” or “minority students” or “diversity” most certainly pertained to all Asian students, yet there was no sense of belonging. When such a collective group simultaneously felt the same way, that was when students realized they can only occupy the space as allies, but not as a member or victim of the struggle.”

Because of Amherst Uprising, students with Asian heritage and allies warmly acknowledged one another in shared spaces, in meetings and in Frost Library as the movement went on. Right after the Frost Library sit-in, ASA held a meeting that was met with a record number of students joining the space. In the room, we the students were connected in the sense that many of us had never been in a room with so many Amherst College Asian and Asian American students before.

Our meetings moving forward fostered fruitful conversations and slowly garnered a community that I had conceptualized, yet could never actually imagine existing on campus. After having felt lonely and community-less for months, I finally experienced solidarity and understanding that I had craved for so long. At ASA, we don’t just discuss various aspects our identities or reflect upon our Amherst experiences. We look around the room and appreciate that we are connected by narratives that may resonate with one another, but at the same time, acknowledge that we hold experiences that make us so incredibly different and special from one another. We look around the room, feeling assured that we have allies who may not carry Asian heritage, but appreciate the individual stories we hold as a result of our unique backgrounds. For most of my life, I had felt invisible, my story as insignificant as pebbles in the eyes of many others who do not care to learn about my heritage. But when I am in a space with people who actually want to know where I come from and who I am, I finally feel like I have a family here on campus, reaching out to skip stones in the expansive lake of our histories.

I am writing this piece just as I leave the MRC after the first ASA meeting of the semester. I scanned the room and noted that the inviting gray sofa was not the only area occupied by interested students; every inch and every corner of the room was dominated by students excited to participate in the club. As my eyes darted from one crowded corner to another, I reflected back to a time when I was the only first-year student at an ASA meeting. But now I looked around the room and noticed that more than half of the students at the meeting were first-year students. I grinned from ear to ear, thinking about how different this club will look in just a few semesters.

Asian Students Association is important to me because I know that my presence and voice on campus deserves to be valued, and I feel the most validated and challenged when I attend these meetings, participate in ASA-hosted events and assume leadership roles to foster a more inclusive space for everyone to share. I want everyone to know that ASA is not just for Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander students; it is for anyone who wants to learn about other perspectives, voices and have a general appreciation for the differing minds comprised of the human spirit.

Slowly, I am starting to realize that other students on campus care about my history, my story and I yearn to be validated in this same way by our institution. I want to see more Asian American courses at Amherst, I want to attend office hours to speak with professors who empathize with my background and I want my history to be acknowledged by an institution that is supposed to support me in every way that it can. I am optimistic about the future of ASA and I hope it will soon be important to you, too.