When I first entered Tufts, I struggled to adjust to the very wealthy, White environment unlike any I had ever been in before. Seeking a community like the ones I had at home, I jumped at the opportunity to join the Chinese Students Association (CSA). I listened as members talked about their different roles on the Executive Board (e-board) and the events that CSA hosted throughout the year. I was excited to be a part of the larger Chinese community at Tufts. It took me a while to realize that the club was solely comprised of the e-board, and if one was not part of the e-board, one had few opportunities to be involved with the club.
CSA is one of 13 culture clubs that are part of the Pan-Asian Council—an umbrella organization for Asian culture clubs. These range from larger communities such as the Korean Students Association and Tufts Association of South Asians, to smaller clubs like the Thai Students Association. Many other culture clubs exist on campus outside of the Pan-Asian Council. However, as I can only draw from my experience within CSA and the Pan-Asian Council, I will focus on how the Tufts Community Union student government affects Asian culture clubs.
Each year, clubs must be re-recognized by the Judiciary, according to its by-laws, in order to book spaces and receive the benefits, privileges, and resources of Tufts organizations. Bylaw 2 Section G requires groups to present proof of putting on at least three events every semester that are open to the Tufts community.
While this may sound easy, this requirement actually transforms the way culture clubs function. Ciel Sriprasert, a member of the Thai Students Association, said, “It’s so difficult and it puts so much strain on our club because we need to churn out three events, and sometimes it creates tension in our group when the whole point of a culture group is to bring us together.” These events take weeks to plan and execute, and become the priority for culture clubs, rather than focusing on community-building and support.
The logistical work that goes into event-planning compels culture clubs to adopt the e-board structure, which often involves an exclusive selection process. Incoming members are “evaluated” accordingly—are they able to navigate the TCU Treasury? Can they drive? Do they live in a house with kitchen space? Do they have the graphic design skills to handle event publicity? These questions during the interview process suggest that membership in e-boards is based on how useful and productive candidates can be, and these questions neglect other ways these individuals can contribute to a community or how they identify with the culture.
This year, CSA had a record number of people run in elections to become e-board members. After the last candidate was interviewed, we had a heated debate about how many should be accepted. The prospect of expanding the e-board sparked worries about efficiency. We accepted nine new members—a number that is embarrassingly low, considering there are over 120 international undergraduate students from China and many domestic students that identify as Chinese.
What does it mean for someone to be rejected by a culture club? It’s not quite the same thing as being turned down by a competition group. At CSA elections last fall, one candidate talked about how they were searching for community and regretted not applying as a first-year. They were turned down. Another asked me after the elections what they had done wrong and why they were not given a spot; I didn’t have the heart to tell them that we selected someone else who could help us advertise events and edit posters. CSA has been a fundamental part of my Tufts experience, and is a community that I value greatly. It deeply upsets me that such a space is inaccessible to so many on this campus, and that, in many ways, I am complicit in perpetuating such exclusivity.
The bylaw also does not differentiate between culture clubs of drastically different sizes. Of the approximately 12 students who identify as Thai on campus, a smaller number sit on the e-board of the Thai Student Association. “For bigger clubs [events] may be more manageable as they can divide up the work, for a smaller club like TSA, it ends up being a huge burden,” said club president Pichayapa Limapichat. “It got to the point where we considered dismantling [the club]. However, we decided that the club should be there to serve Thai students first. Especially for the first-years, it’s important to have a home away from home, but that has come at the cost to the existing members.”
Because of their event-driven structures, Asian culture clubs often struggle to operate as spaces for their communities. There are few spaces where people of color can come together and be surrounded by others who share their identities, culture, and experiences. These clubs should be serving such communities. When the policy requires culture clubs to plan events that are open to everyone, it is essentially asking culture clubs and people of color to serve White members of the Tufts community. Furthermore, the requirement that clubs prove they held three events has deeper implications that also serve to delegitimize a lot of students’ efforts to build community. Sriprasert asked, “Why do I need to make three events that try to prove the Thai Students Association’s legitimacy?”
When meetings are dedicated to event planning, logistics, delegation, and ordering food from our favorite “ethnic” restaurants for the campus-wide community to enjoy, we de-prioritize our communities and instead cater to the interests and “ethnic curiosities” of the rest of the student body. Every student group on campus is held to this three-event standard—that is a fact we understand. But culture clubs are necessarily faced with particular concerns. Many of us hope to build a collective space for international and domestic students to come together, to learn about and share the regions to which we have ties—however fraught those ties might be— and to support one another in our time at Tufts. Students formed these clubs to carve out a space for themselves and for others, and that mission holds true today even if bylaws and budgeting tell us to think otherwise.
There have been several attempts by different Asian culture clubs to re-prioritize their members and make their spaces more accessible. However, despite important efforts from individual clubs such as JCC*, KSA, and TASC, these reform attempts do not address the institutional obstacles clubs face. Kevin Koo, President of the Tufts Asian Student Coalition and a member of the Korean Students Association, described the challenges in reform. “For clubs that have restructured themselves to solve that problem of exclusivity, they are constantly faced with the difficulty of trying to mobilize and plan these events, which inevitably leads to another pseudo-’e-board’ structure at worst, or a constant time and energy sink at best.”
At a recent meeting with the Judiciary, I brought up many of the concerns that Pan-Asian Council members had surrounding the three event requirement. At first, Judiciary members defended the three event rule, stating that clubs could throw small events that didn’t need to be widely advertised—something I like to call “ghost events”—in order to fulfill the requirement. However, they were shocked to hear that culture clubs were essentially centered on events and, as a result, excluded members of the Tufts community. After a meaningful discussion, the possibility of reducing the requirement from three events to one event, and requiring two open meetings per semester was proposed. The Judiciary has stressed that this proposal is not set in stone, and they would like to speak with culture clubs first. However, if the bylaws were changed soon, the rule would go into effect this coming fall—allowing the Class of 2021 to have access to more inclusive culture clubs and community-building spaces.
As we hold conversations about community-building and making spaces more inclusive for students on campus, it is important that we work on improving culture clubs. There are few places where students can experience cultural validation and support—we must question the rules under which culture clubs operate, and work to make sure that they are being supported in serving their communities. I urge members of the Tufts community to advocate for changing the three event requirement. I urge my fellow Asian culture club members to continue speaking up about institutional obstacles that are counterproductive to community-building, to work towards accepting all members that seek to join, and to ask themselves why they hold certain events, who they operate for, and who isn’t a part of their organization. I urge the Judiciary and the CSL to work quickly with culture clubs and enact this change before the Class of 2021 matriculates. As socio-economic and racial inequalities are becoming increasingly pronounced on campus, we must re-center people of color in the few spaces that are devoted to them and allow culture clubs to function as places where students can feel validated, supported, and accepted.