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More than a small shelf: Asian American Center Student Advisory Board hosts open forum on the future of Asian American Center


Students participate in a reflection activity during an open forum hosted by the Asian American Center Student Advisory Board at Campus Y's Anne Queen Lounge on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. The forum gave attendees the chance to learn about the movement to establish an Asian American Center on campus.

CORRECTION (10/28/2019): A previous version of this article named an incorrect host for the open forum. It was hosted by the Asian American Center Student Advisory Board. The article also misstated Eugene Lao's relationship to the campaign committee. The article said Lao gave a $100,000 gift to the Asian American Student Association, but he never donated it directly to the association. Finally, the article had an incorrect launch date for the campaign.

Last Thursday, the Asian American Center Student Advisory Board held an open forum in the Campus Y for UNC community members to learn more about the future of the Asian American Center expected to open in Fall 2020 — despite student leaders advocating for its creation since 1994. 

“Asian American students are the only minority yet to have their own center on campus,” senior June Yom, president of the Asian American Student Association, said. 

After its announced opening earlier this semester, Yom said there was confusion among students about what exactly the Asian American Center would be, what function it would serve and who it would serve. 

Yom said she hoped the open forum would answer these types of questions. 

During the forum, campaign members behind the center presented the center’s purposes which include promoting the public understanding of Asian American cultures, supporting the Asian American student population and providing resources and opportunities for them. 

Including Yom, the campaign team is made up of 11 students and two alumni.

Eugene Lao, an alumnus who graduated in 1991, intended to give AASA a gift of $100,000 to ensure the sustainability of the organization. But, Yom and other student leaders thought the money could go toward the creation of a center to advance the needs of Asian American students on campus.

They approached Lao, who cofounded the original version of AASA, with the idea and gained support from other leaders on campus, such as Barb Lee, a founding member of the UNC Alumni Committee on Racial and Ethnic Diversity who graduated from UNC in 1988. 

During the forum, campaign members said the University does not provide any permanent resources to support the exploration of Asian American identities, cultures and histories on campus other than a small shelf on the seventh floor of Davis Library. 

Yom said the Asian American community is not at all an underrepresented minority but is definitely underserved. 

“I think that Asian Americans sometimes are only referred to as minorities when we fit the narrative, like the model minority,” Yom said. “People say ‘Asian Americans are doing perfectly well in this society, why can’t African Americans do the same?’ In that case, we are a minority, but in every other case that doesn’t benefit the narrative, we aren’t.” 

Asian Americans make up 16 percent of students at UNC and 18 percent of undergraduate first-years, making them the largest ethnic minority on campus, according to campaign members' presentation.

Despite this, in 2016, 35 percent of Asian American students reported they lacked a sense of belonging on campus. 

Emily Kang, a first-year majoring in health policy management, shared her experience during UNC orientation and said there were only two Asian orientation leaders. 

“The diversity UNC stressed during the admissions process, it just wasn’t there,” Kang said.

Andy Liu, a first-year majoring in chemistry, grew up in North Carolina and said he was surprised when he arrived at UNC that the University did not have a center for Asian American students on campus, since they make up a large part of the student population. 

Because of this, Liu said most Asian Americans find their communities within various student groups, which are subject to limitations, like funding, as a campus club. 

The campaign team has made major strides toward the center's creation. This includes accepting $400,000 in donations from Lao and Lee, collecting endorsements from over 20 student organizations, receiving authorization to plan by interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Bob Blouin and assembling a Provost Committee and Student Advisory Board to oversee the process. 

Anna Hattle, a senior majoring in computer science and statistics and analytics and former president of AASA, said the enormous amount of student labor and collaboration is the reason why this is happening. 

“There is power working in combined forces,” Hattle said. “I hope (students) see that as a reason to keep working together.” 

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The campaign, which will launch in spring 2020, must still raise $2.1 million by August 2020 and receive Board of Trustees approval on their Request to Establish the Asian American Center by January 2020 to meet the projected opening date. 

In addition to meeting the members of the Asian American Center Student Advisory Board, attendees were able to give direct feedback to the campaign team and share what they would like to be included in the future space. 

“I hope students walked away with a sense of ownership and feeling like they had a voice over what was going to happen with the center,” Hattle said. 

During the two-hour event, attendees also participated in a reflection activity and heard from members in the Asian American community on their own personal experiences and thoughts on the campaign.

Kang said it was encouraging to see everyone in the room extremely passionate and supportive of the project. 

“It really makes you feel welcome and more comfortable on campus to see that other people are experiencing what you are seeing,” Kang said. 

Yom said her favorite part, when the Asian American community comes together, is recognizing how diverse they are, including demographics, sexuality and heritages. 

"It’s so diverse, yet we are all bound by the same identity," Yom said.