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Breaking Down Doors, Building Community: Reimagining the Asian American Center

Campus | December 4, 2017

“I personally have only been to the Asian American Center (AAC) once during orientation,” said Mei Nagaoka, a first-year student. “As an international student coming from Latin America, I never considered myself an Asian American.” Going into college, Nagaoka “…wanted to be able to explore these concepts and identities through the help of the centre.” However, when she first entered the AAC during Orientation week, she “didn’t feel comfortable at all. I felt extremely out of place and it absolutely terrified me.”

Nagaoka is not the only student who feels that way. Recently, students have started a movement to make the Asian American Center more accessible so it can be a place of community rather than discomfort.

The AAC’s central placement on campus, 17 Latin Way, should make it an ideal place to bring students together for programming and events. Some of the Center’s access policies, however, make the space unwelcoming to students.unless people are directly involved with Center programming (people who actually have key access to the Center), many people think that there is no real need to enter this space.”

Start House, which houses the AAC, is a dorm under the jurisdiction of the Office of Residential Life and Living. Campus policy governing all residential buildings requires two locking doors to separate bedrooms from the outside. Ana Sofía Amieva-Wang, an AAC intern, mentioned that under this policy, the Center is only located in one room on the first floor of Start House, AAC Director Linell Yugawa’s office— which remains locked when she’s not there. “[Her office] is a different color with different furniture… we can’t even change the common room space because it falls under ResLife,” Amieva-Wang emphasized. “It’s not fair to say her office is a communal space.” Because of Thanksgiving break, we were unable to reach AAC Director Linell Yugawa for a comment.

The Center employs a Staff Assistant, Fatima Blanca Munoz; a Graduate Assistant, Koko Li; along with ten student interns. Students can only access the Center during hours when there are interns working who can open the door. This means that students cannot freely use the space. According to the Center’s website, students are asked to make appointments with the Center/house residents if they need to enter the space outside of this timeframe.

Currently, Asian American students are pushing Tufts’ administration to relocate student housing from Start House to open up the Asian American Center space. On November 19, the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate unanimously passed a resolution––authored by Amieva-Wang, TCU Historian Jacqueline Chen, Diversity and Community Affairs Officer Shannon Lee, and Asian American Community Senator Charlie Zhen–– that called on Tufts to differentiate Asian American housing from the AAC to make the Center more accessible. A student petition calling for community support of the issue collected over 550 signatures. Amieva-Wang said that the campaign has been a collective movement and that having “students and interns who attended our open meetings and expressed interest in supporting the process was crucial.”

In addition to relocating students to an alternate residential space, the list of demands includes that the Center be expanded beyond the rooms that are currently utilized as Start House’s common space and the director’s office space. The petition’s vision for community spaces includes a quiet study area, a communal lounge for students to build relationships, meeting spaces for Asian American Studies courses, separate office spaces for the director, staff, and interns, a conference room where clubs, workshops, and discussion groups could meet, creative space for students to collaborate, and an Asian American library available to the community. Lee hopes that when resources are eventually allocated to renovating the Center, there will be opportunities for student input: “This needs to be a space for students, created by students, and led by students. I think there isn’t a better time for the AAC to incorporate this element than now.”

The AAC is not the only Group of Six center to demand additional resources from the administration. In the Student Life Review Committee Report to President Anthony Monaco released in May 2017, the committee recommended that Tufts conduct a comprehensive study of the programs, services, facilities, and resources provided by or allocated to the Group of Six to determine ways to increase support across campus for traditionally underrepresented students. According to an email from Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon, “fundraising to more meaningfully support student programs in the Group of Six” is a main concern for her office this semester. Specific to the efforts to open up the Asian American Center, McMahon says the “petition makes a very strong case and yes, it’s a priority for me and the Division of Student Affairs to find a way forward that better meets these needs than the present Start House configuration.”

As part of the Group of Six, under the direction of the Dean of Student Affairs, the Center is intended to be a resource for Asian/Asian American communities at Tufts and create a supportive and inclusive environment for students through its programming and services. Based on the Center’s mission statement, it “recognizes the mono- and multiracial East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian peoples, cultures and intersecting social identities present in the Tufts community, and advocates for students to ensure a successful college experience.” While the issue of the locked front door to the Start House is an immediate concern, there are other underlying needs that have yet to be addressed.

Pat Mahaney, a third year and former Asian American Center Peer Leader (AAPL), acknowledged that the resolution was a great starting point, but emphasized that it was equally important to “think beyond physically separating the AAC from housing.” They added, “Accessibility doesn’t necessarily mean fostering a supportive Asian American community. Rather, it’s critical to reflect on why we want this space in the first place.”

Having a space like the AAC is critical for the many Asian/Asian American students at Tufts. According to data taken from Tufts’ Diversity and Inclusion page, during the Fall 2016 semester, there were 1,073 self-identified Asian students enrolled in the Undergraduate population out of a total of 5,438 students (19.7%). Because the term Asian/Asian American is not a monolith and encompasses students with varying experiences and backgrounds, not all students feel that their identities are acknowledged in the AAC space and programming.

Recent graduate Sylvia Ofoma (A’17) felt like she had to choose between different aspects of her identity at Tufts. “I shouldn’t have to suppress my Black identity in the Asian American Center for my Asian identity to be valid.” Josephine Ong (A’17) said, “As a Chinese-Filipino, I never really felt like the ‘Filipino’ side of my identity was welcomed into the space. Moreover, some of my Asian [American] experiences are different because I grew up in Guam, so I would end up running into cultural barriers.” Ho added, “I think of how nuanced the term ‘Asian/Asian American’ is, and how the different ways in which people interpret their identities leads to the divisiveness I see in our communities here […] there’s so much silencing […] because we are never collected in one physical space to truly organize or at least talk over the thoughts that float through our communities.”

Throughout the year, according to its website, the AAC intends to provide “educational programs that focus on the Asian experience in the US; [offer] resources for [the] transition to college; provid[e] social opportunities to learn from and engage with peers; and [inform] students of campus events and opportunities.” The Center also serves as a liaison for the 11 Asian culture clubs under the Pan-Asian Council. Students who are not affiliated with culture clubs or did not engage with the Center during Orientation can end up feeling disengaged with the Center in their later years at Tufts. Natasha Khwaja, co-chair of the South Asian Political Action Committee (SAPAC) and a former AAPL remarked, “We expect to some extent to be involved and given a voice (or at least informed) in AAC programming that is related to South Asian issues, especially given the AAC’s history of being overly biased towards East Asian identities,” adding that even in her time as an AAPL “my largest misgiving was that even us committed students were given little to no say in center programming.”

There are efforts being made to make the AAC more intentional beyond opening the physical space. This semester, Munoz and Li started a collective social justice learning space and a holistic mental health space called “Healing and Feelings.” They are also working with a student to discuss how to facilitate conversations on anti-Blackness in the Asian American community and are in the process of collaborating more with the other centers. “What we can do at the AAC to make our center more welcoming for all AA students is to always remember ‘Asian American’ is just one aspect of our identities, and we at the AAC should always be thinking about how we’re making our space more accessible,” Li emphasized. “Is our program accessible to someone who needs wheelchair access, or needs a scent free space, or translation, an ASL interpreter, someone who is queer, are we respecting people’s pronouns, are we checking colorism, classism, etc. at the door?”

With over a thousand undergraduate students who identify as Asian at Tufts, creating a sense of community will require reflection and collaboration. Ashley Shen (A’17), elaborated, “Creating and maintaining supportive Asian American communities–especially ones that engage with race, trauma, and injustice– is really, really hard work. If you do it anyway, trust your reasons. Trust yourself.”