Reflections on the push for Asian American studies at UIC

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER — UIC alums (from left) David Mei, Ryan Viloria, Brandon Lee, Joyce Yin, Heather DeGuia and Jennifer Tsang were presented with books written and signed by current UIC Asian American studies faculty as part of the Sept. 23 kick-off event. photo by Elizabeth Thomson

It has been quite some time since I last walked through the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) campus. There are distinct memories I carry with me about my time in college. For instance, the gigantic cement structures, the time Will Ferrell and Dustin Hoffman filmed “Stranger than Fiction” at UIC, and eating pizza puffs from one of the three cafeterias at one o’clock in the morning. I graduated in 2006 with a political science degree. However, while there, I also obtained a different form of education as well as gained a series of memories that remain distinct.

In the 2005-2006 school year, I was the chairperson of the Asian American Coalition Committee. The mission of the organization is to unify Asian American students to strengthen their voice on campus, to educate the entire UIC community about issues concerning Asian Americans, and to empower Asian American students through gaining visibility and representation. A small band of students each year worked with the UIC administration to create more inclusive educational opportunities for its student population. Namely, we wanted UIC to build an Asian American studies program.

During those days and the years prior, students who wanted a program came across heavy resistance from the administration itself, various departments, and even UIC’s own student body. However, often times, what many administrators failed to comprehend was that in the vast majority of cases, students do not like to learn. In fact, many students simply attend college because it is an essential part of taking the next step in life. It is rare when students demand the ability and the right to learn. And that is exactly what those who wanted Asian American studies wanted.

Looking back at all of the petitioning, the workshops, the townhall meetings and the rallies, I cherish just how much a continuously dedicated group can accomplish. Not only do I find that such undertakings lead to a more informed populous at UIC and in the Chicago community, but it also assisted me as an individual — to learn about struggle, sacrifice, thoroughness, preparation and timing. Lastly, and most importantly, I learned what it was to be an Asian American living in America — that as a person of color, I have a responsibility toward my identity and perpetually shaping that identity so that I may also help others find theirs.

On Sept. 23, I attended UIC’s official kick-off to its Asian American studies program. After 20 long years of struggle, the study of Asian Americans finally has a niche in Chicago. There was joy and relief from the students, faculty, staff and community members that attended. I, myself, was elated that I played a small yet significant role in the movement. And I, too, felt the same overwhelming jubilation that our work meant something to the school and the community that I have come to love.

In the end, the work of students is not over simply because there is an established program. There will always be a place for the student voices. The university system is a business like all others, and businesses must have clients to remain viable. Students and alumni of this university and collegiate system are those clients. Even now, it is imperative that, as clients, students and alumni continue to vocalize their pleasure and discontent with the Asian American studies program at UIC. To not do so and to let the program fall into possible disrepair tramples upon the hard work and sacrifice of those who worked so diligently to make that happy day last month a reality.

Brandon Mita, recent graduate of Howard University School of Law, is now an attorney in the Chicago office of Littler Mendelson, PC. He was the past National Youth Representative for the Japanese American Citizens League and is still involved with the Chicago Asian American community. He may be reached at brandonrobertmita@gmail.com.

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