When Eugene Lao co-founded the Asian Students Association 30 years ago, he hoped the group would create a place where Asians of all ethnicities on UNC's campus could come together.
“There were few Asian-interest groups, very few Asian-interest groups at the time, and I think they were a bit more siloed,” he said.
In 1994, the Asian population marked about three percent of Carolina’s student body. Now, it makes up about 11 percent.
The desire for a community is reflected in the more than 40 Asia-related student organizations that now exist on campus. And amid the challenges of a virtual school year and COVID-19 last year, one of UNC’s first Asian-interest organizations — now called the Asian American Students Association — remained strong.
Jessie Zheng joined AASA as a first-year in 2019, when things were still up and running in person. But even after COVID-19 sent the majority of UNC students home during her sophomore year, Zheng said she still felt like part of the AASA community.
That sense of kinship has been her favorite part about being in the organization.
“After we went online because of COVID, AASA was still very active,” Zheng, now a junior, said. “I talked to and met a bunch of new people.”
On a Discord server, students had the opportunity to network with other AASA members from home. Zheng said she was able to form new friendships with her “littles” and other members through the chat and online games, such as Among Us.
And now that students are back on campus, AASA is returning with similar energy.
“AASA’s goal is to provide a social, safe space for Asian Americans where they can connect with each other through cultural and political discussions while having fun together,” Katrina Jagadeesan, a member of AASA, said.
Jagadeesan joined AASA her first year, but says she was not very involved at the start.
But after attending an AASA beach trip and getting to know some of the other members, she was inspired to join the leadership team her sophomore year. Junior year, she stepped up to be the publicity chairperson.
Now, she serves as the president.
“The idea of having an Asian American community – it was something that I hadn’t grown up with before,” Jagadeesan said. “After meeting a couple of the members and getting to know them and participating, that was something I was missing in my life.”
Throughout the semester, AASA hosts general body meetings that are both culturally and socially focused. During these monthly meetings, they run guided discussions on various topics including the fetishization of East Asian culture and anti-Asian hate crimes. Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition that tracks and responds to incidents of hate against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S., reported more than 9,000 hate incidents from March 19, 2020 to June 30, 2021.
In the fall of 2020, in collaboration with Kasama, the Filipino American Association of UNC-CH, and Monsoon, UNC’s South Asian interest magazine, AASA co-hosted "LGBTQ+ Experiences in the Asian/AsAm Community."
“It was really cool seeing that we supported other Asian-interest organizations, also,” Gwen Lau, AASA's cultural chairperson, said. “I realized it was a community I wanted to be a part of.”
As the cultural chairperson, Lau has been working on Journey Into Asia, AASA’s annual cultural showcase. Often held in late February, the event hosts a variety of performances pertaining to Asian culture, showcasing everything from traditional songs and dances to acapella pop music under one theme. Journey Into Asia is traditionally held in Memorial Hall but was shifted online last year during the pandemic.
The theme for 2020 was “#As-1-anAmerican," or "As One An American," which aimed to promote unity under the broader pan-ethnic title of “Asian American” and came in response to the trending 2015 hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.
In 2021, Journey Into Asia was entitled "RESILIENCE," which sought to empower Asian Americans during the surges of hate crimes since the pandemic. The theme for 2022 has not yet been announced. Though the organization is hoping to host Journey Into Asia in person again, plans are still up in the air.
For alumni like Lao, seeing the growth of AASA and its initiatives on campus has been significant. Lao said the ability to inform members of the UNC community of the contributions Asian Americans have made to U.S. history is crucial, especially in the wake of a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes.
“As our society has gotten more polarized, it occurs to me that groups like AASA are more important than ever,” Lao said. “... The only way, I think, really to combat (fear and ignorance) is with education.”
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