Nourishing Our Roots: Legacies of Tufts Asian Student Activism

Editor’s Note: Billy Zeng and Rohith Raman are both currently members of the Tufts Asian Student Coalition (TASC) and the South Asian Political Action Committee (SAPAC), respectively. This does not impact the accuracy of the reporting. 

Historically, student activism within the Asian American community has been focused on advocating for physical space and visibility to better connect Asian students. Student activists pushed for the creation of many of the Tufts’ Division of Student Diversity and Inclusion (DSDI) centers in light of targeted violence against minority groups. The Asian American Center (AAC) is one of eight identity-based centers on campus, and, traditionally, it has struggled to receive the necessary administrative financial support and resources to support the Asian American community. Many student interns took matters into their own hands to ensure the longevity and future of the AAC. According to a 2018 Tufts Observer article, AAC interns took the initiative to launch fundraisers that would help the AAC grow to its full potential.

“[The administration] almost took away the AAC and the DSDI Centers, and the Mural Room [at the AAC] is to commemorate that and say this is our space,” said junior Nacie Loh, a member of the Tufts Asian Student Coalition (TASC). 

Prior to the establishment of the Asian American Center, there was a robust Asian American community that created affinity spaces on their own. Voices, a literary and visual arts magazine, serves as a space for the Asian diaspora to have a sense of identity and belongingness. A group of Asian-identifying students that eventually formed TASC spearheaded this initiative according to a 1976 Observer article titled Asian Lit Magazine. TASC’s current mission is “to educate and mobilize toward progressive social change, [and aspire] to foster a safe space within which the Tufts community can learn and discuss Asian American issues.” Similar to TASC’s Voices, the Tufts Association of South Asians (TASA) produced a South Asian literary and arts magazine titled S.A.L.A.A.M in the early 2000s. Around the same time, student activists formed the South Asian Political Action Committee (SAPAC) to advocate for a Hindi/Urdu language program and a South Asian center separate from the AAC.  

Three years ago, when inaugural AAC Director Linell Yugawa retired, the Tufts administration initially had no intention of filling her position. This decision sparked frustration across the Tufts student body. On March 21, 2019, a group of concerned Asian and Asian American students wrote in a Tufts Daily op-ed, “[The Asian American community] cannot let the university define [their] realities and possibilities.” Students from the Asian American community then took the initiative to open a dialogue with the administration to meet their demands for institutional resources and support.

After this student mobilization, the Tufts Administration sent out a university-wide email announcing Aaron Parayno had been named the new director of the Asian American Center—six months after the release of the op-ed. 

In recent years, Asian student activism has shifted toward advocating for intellectual resources to study Asian America. With Tufts’ addition of the Race, Colonialism, & Diaspora (RCD) Studies Department in 2018, Asian American student organizers have shifted their energies to advocating for institutional investments and support for ethnic studies scholars as well as the growing ethnic studies community as students can declare majors and minors in various RCD tracks.

Academic discourse can provide another avenue for like-minded individuals with shared experiences to come together and think about their identities critically. Junior Anneke Chan, a member of TASC, explained, “It [is] really nice to be in spaces where there are other students who [share Asian] identities.” She continued, “There’s a certain solidarity when you understand that you’re learning about things that affect you together.” For Chan, these classes become “a community space where there [is not] one necessarily built-in.” 

These academic spaces for Asian American students often create a social network of students with similar experiences and political motivations. “When you are doing [organizing work]… you can uplift certain things that your club is working on and [it is] going to be received well [and] critically thought about and talked about,” said junior Saira Mukherjee, a member of SAPAC. “If I need community support, these are people and faculty that I can come to, which is valuable.” 

However, many Asian American students, like those in TASC and SAPAC, have struggled to find this community in academic spaces because of a lack of courses within the field of Asian American studies. 

Senior Matthew Cho, a member of TASC, spoke about his experience taking the ExCollege class Asian American Boston, “That was a semester where there [weren’t] any Asian American studies [classes]… I think that it’s important to note that ethnic studies have come out of student protest and resistance and that there is resistance [from] the university to teach these classes.”

This institutional inertia extends beyond the classroom, affecting not only those within academia but also activist groups. For student organizations like TASC and SAPAC, which focus on political advocacy on campus, it is often difficult to reach their goals. As they work on projects like adding caste to Tufts’ discrimination policy, these groups face a constant uphill battle to overcome barriers erected by the administration. 

Last spring, SAPAC began advocating for the addition of adding caste to the Office of Equal Opportunity’s (OEO) discrimination policy. SAPAC circulated a that amassed 571 signatures from Tufts students, faculty, and staff; however, caste has yet to be explicitly added to the OEO’s discrimination policy. Sophomore Sristi Panchu, a member of SAPAC’s caste discrimination working group, revealed the challenges that their group has faced with the Office of Equal Opportunity. She said that “[the OEO] makes [changing anti-discrimination policies] sound like such a smooth and streamlined [process], but it’s really not”. 

Loh expressed her frustration at the degree of the Tufts administration’s cooperation in responding to student claims. “[Tufts often waits] for students [calling for change] to graduate so that they can move on from it,” she said. “I’m thinking about the AAC and how, in 2019, they almost took [it] away.” As the administration fails to recognize students’ needs, the burden falls on other facets of the community to pick up the slack. 

Departments like RCD Studies rely on the labor of faculty members to continue to function. In fact, there has recently been much controversy over the treatment of faculty of color, with the Admissions Dean being accused of workplace discrimination on racial grounds. This has brought to the forefront the long-lasting concern that the community has had for these faculty members and the resources they are given. 

When asked about the role faculty and staff play in the struggle for representation, senior Malvika Wadhawan, co-director of SAPAC, explained, “Professors and faculty do have a lot of power at this university… Professors of color generally can’t even get to that point of having tenure… A lot of how organizing on campuses works is through student and faculty collaborations… [University of California faculty made a plea to] add caste to their anti-discrimination policy.” Wadhawan continued, “[However], it [feels] like, if [those faculty] weren’t there, [nothing] would be happening.”

However, a relationship between students and faculty who experience this provides an avenue to pursue more critical academic work and accountability on campus. “Every four years, students cycle through, and the administration knows that. [Tufts] will do these very performative things like talk about making task forces… to placate until students graduate,” Mukherjee continued. “A lot of the time, professors end up being the only living memory of movements that wanted to get off the ground, but [couldn’t].” 

For Courtney Sato, an Assistant Professor within the RCD Department, this collaboration captures the essence of critical scholarship and dialogue within Asian spaces. “At a place like Tufts, students and faculty are often able to work in tandem to showcase the kinds of research that are possible through departments like the RCD Department… Similarly, I aim to offer students the kind of mentorship that reflects my own commitments to working not just in conventional university spaces, but through work and activism that goes beyond the bounds of the university,” Sato explained in an email to the Tufts Observer. “Often, students are some of the best collaborators for such work as they’re often already integrated and engaged with such communities.”

Bringing together academics, students, and community members, student activist groups have created momentum in realizing some of the Tufts Asian American community’s goals. For the future, TASC and SAPAC want to continue to push Asian students at Tufts to critically engage with their identities. Wadhawan said, “A lot of Asian American students on this campus are not political and pride themselves in not being political… I think there’s a lot of room [for] the Asian American community at Tufts to grow in terms of thinking about their own identities critically.”