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UNC students and alumni are working to create an Asian American Center

Asian American Center

Students behind the efforts to establish an Asian American Center on Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019. Photo courtesy of Liezel Alipio.  

Thirty years ago, Eugene Lao co-founded UNC’s original Asian Students Association, now the Asian American Students Association. Today, Lao, class of ’91, and fellow alumni are working with students to create an Asian American Center on campus.

The campaign team has 13 people, with 11 undergraduate students and two alumni. The projected opening date for the center is fall 2020.

Lao originally intended to give a $100,000 gift to AASA. Senior June Yom, president of AASA, and other student leaders thought the money could have a greater impact elsewhere.

“We all collectively realized that though this money could be good for the sustainability of AASA as a student organization, it could be better to give back to the entire Asian American community at large rather than AASA being able to serve food at every event or stuff like that,” Yom said.

Yom and other students approached Lao with the idea for an Asian American Center.

“We thought, 'What would be a dream goal?' And a dream goal would be an Asian American Center,” junior Sean Nguyen, director of the Asian American Center campaign, said.

Subsequently, the team received support from Barb Lee ’88, a founding member of the UNC Alumni Committee on Racial and Ethnic Diversity. Nguyen, Yom and other team members met with Lao and Lee in August to discuss the development of the project. The campaign team will continue to focus on alumni and campus engagement going forward.

Asian American students have repeatedly pushed for representation on campus in the past. In 2017, students, such as David Choi, advocated for the creation of an Asian-American Studies program.

“Asian American students at UNC have been pushing for this for the last 10 years, but it hasn’t been able to get traction and no institutional support had existed,” Nguyen said.

Though he graduated in 2018, Choi is on the Asian American Center campaign team. The team is now working with administration to develop the center.

“I think it speaks to the necessity of it in our eyes as a team,” Sara Holley, co-director of strategic communications, said. “Because really comprising over 15 percent of the student population and then not having resources dedicated to us by the University or supported by the University, I think there’s clearly a need.”

Current undergraduates on the team have also struggled with representation on campus. Before joining Asian-interest Greek life in the spring of her first year, Holley had difficulties finding a community at UNC.

“I think it’s just difficult feeling like you don’t have somewhere to go to when you want resources specifically relating to your Asian American identity,” Holley said. “And I’m really excited to see a space where everyone can convene, and also a space where Asian Americans at UNC can share their identities with other groups on campus.”

Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Robert Blouin approved the request for Authorization to Plan Asian American Center. This is required by the University to establish centers and institutes on campus. Now, the team is working on submitting the request for Authorization to Establish Asian American Center.

The Asian American Center team has received written endorsements from over 15 Asian American student organizations including AASA, Sangam and MASH. Additionally, they have received endorsements from non-Asian American organizations such as the Campus Y and student government.

Nguyen said the center is not solely a physical space specifically for Asian American students, but rather a place to understand the Asian American identity.

“There’s a lot that a center, and obviously a physical space, but a center with fully equipped resources to provide mentorship that I wish I had had when I first came in,” Nguyen said.

Andrew Garbisch, a graduate student in the School of Education, is on the Student Advisory Board to the Asian American Center and gives insight on the educational resources that will be available at the center. Garbisch, an Asian American adoptee, focuses on adoptee education and has given seminars and lectures on the topic.

“As I’ve been doing that, I’ve realized there is such a diversity and such a wide range of Asian Americans and also Asian international students, also Southeast Asians,” Garbisch said. “There’s just such a wide variety so it’s become apparent to me that it’s really important to explore some of the nuances of Asian American culture and Asian culture at the same time.”

Garbisch works with eight other students on the advisory board. This body represents student voices in the planning process and will approve the policy for the Asian American Center, that is written by the Provost Committee on the Asian American Center. This Provost Committee was established in September and is chaired by Vice Provost for Academic Initiatives Carol Tresolini.

“We have the Stone Center for Black Culture and History, the American Indian Center and most recently the Latinx Center, and I think this center follows in those footsteps,” Tresolini said. “Each one of them is very unique.”

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The Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History was established in 1988 to raise awareness and appreciation for African American culture, similar to what the Asian American Center team hopes to do for Asian American culture. Joseph Jordan, director of the Sonja Haynes Stone Center, said education about Asian American culture is important for the UNC community.

“One of the best ways to learn about yourself is to place yourself in conversation with other communities,” Jordan said. “You don’t want anything on a campus like this to be insular.”

The Carolina Latinx Center opened in July 2019, but had been in the works for more than 10 years. The creation of the center was originally halted because of the 2008 recession. Final approval for the center was held once again in 2016. Former Chancellor Carol Folt granted the center’s approval in January 2019.

The Latinx Center offices were created in available space in Abernethy Hall after the American Indian Center moved to a new location on Wilson Street.

Josmell Pérez, director of the Latinx Center, said location can be a challenge.

“I think the biggest hurdle is space,” Perez said. “As you can imagine, space is at a premium on our campus and its limited.”

The location of the Asian American Center has not yet been determined. Perez said having this physical space will be important for the community.

“I think that the more we have spaces where faculty, staff and students can come together to further learn about their own heritage, their own cultures and at the same time enrich the broader Carolina landscape,” Perez said. “The better we’re all for it.”

The campaign team has raised $400,000 for the center and shared this news with Asian American student organizations.

"I think for the first time, folks in the room, whether it’s the Asian American Students Association or the Vietnamese Students Association or Sangam, for the first time Asian American students on this campus are being told that their unique perspectives as Asian Americans are recognized and are validated through this effort,” Nguyen said. 

Fundraising efforts for the Asian American Center will continue throughout the year. The team aims to raise $2.1 million by August 2020.

The team plans to officially launch the Asian American Center campaign in spring 2020 after fundraising and receiving community input from the community. The first public forum for the center will be held on Oct. 24.