CORRECTION: A previous version of this article mischaracterized a statement from UNC College of Art's and Sciences dean, Terry Rhodes. Rhodes said supporting study abroad and global learning opportunities is a high priority in UNC's fundraising campaign, For All Kind.
The article also misidentified students' afilliated organizations. Alex Moore is a board member of the Southeast Asian Student Association (SEASA). Giselle Pagunuran is a board member for SEASA. Kimberly Cang is a board member for the Asian American Students Association. The article has been updated to reflect the changes. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the errors.
When Thoai Vu came to UNC in 2017, he was looking forward to improving his skill in his family's native tongue, Vietnamese.
But the junior biology major said he was let down when he found out the University didn’t offer courses in any Southeast Asian language.
“I wanted to be able to engage in the language I was comfortable with and which was deeply rooted in my identity as a person — as an Asian American,” Vu, president of the Vietnamese Student Association, said. “To have come here and not have that be available was really disappointing. And it’s not an experience I want people like my younger brother or future generations of Tar Heels to have.”
In fall 2019, Vu said he approached the VSA advisor, geography professor Christian Lentz, about creating a petition for UNC to add Southeast Asian languages onto the curriculum. He said Lentz was supportive of the idea.
“I took that opportunity as my calling to be one of the leaders and to ask some others in the Asian American community to help me with this goal,” Vu said.
Vu partnered with other UNC students of the Asian American community, such as Angel Santaloci, junior and Southeast Asian Student Association co-founder; juniors Alex Moore and Giselle Pagunuran, both board members for the Southeast Asian Student Association (SEASA) and Asian American Students Association board member sophomore Kimberly Cang.
On Dec. 19, Vu and his committee published the petition after months of planning and drafting.
Addressed directly to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and other UNC leaders, the petition states that the University has failed to follow through on its commitment to diversity due to its “prior removal and current absence of Southeast Asian language courses at the UNC College of Arts & Sciences.”
Professor Morgan Pitelka, the chairperson of the Asian Studies department, said in an email that Vietnamese used to be taught on occasion by Professor Eric Henry, but when he retired, the department wasn’t able to get funding from the College to hire a replacement.
As for Indonesian and Thai, Pitelka said they have never been a regular part of the curriculum.
“We have never had regular faculty who taught those languages, so they must have been temporary adjunct offerings or maybe even courses taught by grad students,” he said in an email.
Pitelka said most of his department's language programs have been externally funded, particularly by grants from foundations or the U.S government.
While he is supportive of the petition, Pitelka said he isn't exactly sure where the University would get new money from within its existing budget to start funding Southeast Asian languages.
College of Arts & Sciences Dean Terry Rhodes said in an email that supporting study abroad and global learning opportunities is a high priority in UNC's fundraising campaign, For All Kind.
“As part of this campaign, donors can make gifts directly to the Carolina Asia Center, which is connecting Carolina to Asia through language study, study abroad and visiting scholars program,” Rhodes said. “Donors also can give to the Department of Asian Studies.”
Vu said he recognizes the value of external funding and that he and his committee are always looking for ways to procure it. But he said he doesn’t think that should absolve the University from playing any role in the creation of a Southeast Asian language program.
“I think it's important to remember that the onus shouldn't be placed solely on parties interested, especially if the University and the university system is dedicated to diversity,” he said. “They should be taking a larger role in matters such as these, but unfortunately, they have not.”
The petition also describes the ever-increasing percentage of Asian Americans on campus, stating that Asian Americans made up just 1.5 percent of all students, staff and faculty in 1986 compared to 11.5 percent of the incoming class alone in 2019.
And while a student-led effort to create an Asian American Center on campus was approved by UNC in January, Vu said this isn’t enough to accommodate everyone.
“We think that is very important and a step in the right direction,” Vu said. “But, we feel as a separate group and separate committee trying to work on Southeast Asian languages, there's more to be done.”
Vu said he is wary of administrators viewing the Asian-Americans as a monolith. He said though the University offers a plethora of Asian languages — ranging from Chinese to Korean to Japanese — the problem is when people forget about other countries on the continent.
“It is very mistaken to assume that this entire demographic, which people deem as ‘Asian’ or ‘Asian American,’ experience the same type of conflict and disadvantages that the rest of Asia experiences,” Vu said. “By bringing Southeast Asian languages to campus, as a community we would be recognizing the demographic as being different and unique — as having their own advantages and own struggles that should be celebrated instead of existing inside this monolith.”
But both Vu and Pitelka agree that it’s challenging to decide which Southeast Asian languages get to be taught.
“From the Southeast Asian Language Studies committee, our initial thoughts were to reintroduce Vietnamese, Thai and Indonesian, as these were the courses most recently offered to the student body approximately two decades ago,” Vu said. “As such, there should still be documents and materials from those courses, as well as an initial framework off which to reconstruct and update the programs for today's climate.”
Vu said there are other considerations to keep in mind, but the University could gauge interest in those courses and assess which other language programs to introduce and in what capacity to introduce them.
There are practical limitations to how many different languages courses can be added, but Vu said that for now the committee just wants the University to at least take a step in that direction.
Noah Hines, a junior English and comparative literature major who signed the petition, said the movement is important to him because Southeast Asian cultures are often undervalued and under-appreciated.
“I truly believe that representation is important, especially in university environments,” Hines said. “This petition displays that there is a need and desire for Southeast Asian language courses at UNC-Chapel Hill, and I completely support the movement.”
There are a little over 200 signatures right now, but Vu said it’s still not enough.
“We want more students to partner with us to show that this is really important to the University as a whole,” he said. “You can't ignore this — it's an important part of the student experience. Cultures and identities cannot be overlooked. It’s not just a Southeast Asian thing. It’s really a global thing.”
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