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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, April 14, 2024

Asian American Center celebrates 40th anniversary, power of student activism 

The Tufts Asian American Center was founded in 1983 as a resource for Asian and Asian American students, and this year marks its official 40th anniversary on campus. The center’s anniversary underscores a rich history of student activism and demands for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives on Tufts’ campus.

The AAC was originally the Start House, a women’s dormitory which transformed into the Asian Culture House residential community in 1973. After members of the Zeta Psi fraternity yelled anti-Asian hate speech outside the Asian Culture House in 1982, Tufts students, staff and faculty advocated for the formation of the Asian Student Center on the first floor of the Start House, now known as the Asian American Center.

According to AAC Associate Director Emily Ding, the center has gone through major changes and renovations since its founding as a result of student activism, including hiring three full-time staff members and expansion of the center to all three floors on 17 Latin Way. 

“Everything that we have now, which is more staff, the full space [and] all the little things, were fought for,” Ding said. “I think, also, students don’t know what big of an act student activism can have. It’s easy to take for granted how things are.”

Ding emphasizes that the 40th anniversary represents a powerful milestone not only for Tufts but for college campuses across the country. 

“I would say 40 is a big number for us, not only because it’s our 40th anniversary this year, but because there’s only 40-something Asian American centers in colleges in the U.S., and we happen to be one of the oldest,” Ding said. 

AAC Director Aaron James Parayno also highlighted the importance of the 40th anniversary, given that many Asian American centers in the United States have formed out of pushback to racism and marginalization of minority groups. 

“I think it’s important to really think about multigenerational and intergenerational connections because I think the issues that students are facing in 2023 in some ways are similar to the issues that students were facing in 1983,” Parayno said. “40 years on a scale might not sound like a lot, but … the consistent thread has been around activism and really just community and belonging, so I think it’s really important to celebrate that and remember our roots and where we came from.”

According to Parayno, the Africana Center’s 50th anniversary served as inspiration for the AAC  staff to organize their own celebration, so he hopes to continue collaboration across identity centers.

In honor of the center’s 40th anniversary, Ding and Graduate Assistant Yuuki Nishida co-curated an art exhibition in the Slater Concourse Gallery titled “Our Histories, Our Futures.” The exhibition explores the legacy of the AAC as well as the dreams for its future.

Nishida explained that he aspired to record the histories of not only Asian Americans at Tufts but also Asians in the United States as a whole.

“It’s very important to document and memorialize these kinds of histories, especially when taken within the broader context of being Asian in America,” Nishida said.

Within the exhibit, one wall displays a timeline of the AAC from the 1970s to the present day. The history of the AAC is complemented by interviews with AAC alumni as well as photographs and other historical documents over the course of the center’s 40-year history.

According to Parayno, it was important for the AAC staff to reach out to alums for the 40th anniversary so current students can learn from their past experiences and foster a sense of intergenerational community.

Junior Arnav Patra is a student intern at the AAC who helped in conducting archival research on the center and speaking with alumni about their experiences. Patra explains that it was very interesting to speak with past members and learn how the center has evolved over time.

“By being in a space like the Asian American Center, I've been able to appreciate a lot more of the history, the politics and the activism that goes with Asian America, which I just didn't really know before that because it’s not something that's necessarily taught in our K–12 education,” Patra said.

One of the things Patra found thought-provoking in his research was how the categorization of Tufts demographics changed over time.

South Asian students were once listed as “Caucasian” in Tufts records and this group was not formally recognized as Asian Americans at Tufts until the Class of 1993. In addition, the university used the term “Oriental” to describe Asian populations and did not update this terminology to “Asian/Pacific Islander” until 1978.

Patra believes that it is important to explore the histories of what it means to be Asian American at Tufts.

“Part of our anniversary was to acknowledge those histories and recognize that we only exist as a space because of the voices of students,” Patra said. “So our job and our goal at the end of the day is to be responsive to the needs of the community.

In addition to the reflection on the AAC’s history, the art exhibit’s displays submissions from Asian and Asian American Tufts students.

Nishida explains that the student artwork helps to connect the past history of Asian Americans to what work still needs to be done for the future.

On the right side of the wall … are the imaginations of our future of the current generation,” Nishida said. “When you start to take a look at the past and think about what kind of work has been done [and] the student activism that led us to where we are today, … [we] think about what do we want our future generations to have? What do we want to fight for now so that people in the next 40 years can celebrate the work that’s being done today?”

Parayno also appreciated the artwork of current Tufts students and how it ties into the Asian American experience.

“Something that I’m just astounded by is just how creative our students are. … A piece that was particularly moving for me was this photo set done by Reina Matsumoto,” Parayno said. “It was portraits of her and her mother. … I think that was just something particularly moving to me, and thinking about … our home communities … really [helps] us persist.”

Patra explains that working on “Our Histories, Our Futures” was one of his most memorable projects at the AAC.

“This year, I’m very proud of, obviously, the work on the gallery … because I saw it come from just an idea that we had at the end of spring semester last year,” Patra said. “To see it physically as a space and welcome people in was just really special and powerful.”

In addition to the “Our Histories, Our Futures” art exhibit, the AAC has also been organizing other events throughout 2023. The AAC hosted Ocean Vuong, a queer Vietnamese American writer, as a keynote speaker on March 30.

According to Ding, this event was one of the most attended events organized by the AAC.

“There was just so much excitement over it and [over 400] tickets sold out in … a few days,” Ding said. “This was our Spring Fling for the Asian community.”

In addition, the AAC is hosting its annual Arts and Crafts Festival on April 14 as well as continuing its peer mentorship program for incoming Tufts students.

As the 40th anniversary of the AAC continues, Parayno hopes that this encourages Tufts students to explore Tufts’ Asian American history and what it means to have this identity space on campus.

“I just hope that folks take time to really connect with us and really think about learning about stories that are different from their own,” Parayno said.

Ding echoes Parayno’s sentiments and encourages students to explore the AAC and its resources.

“We have such a long history of student activism here and such a great, long history of community within our center, so I would really encourage students to take advantage of our center and what we have to offer,” Ding said.

“Our Histories, Our Futures” will be on display at the Slater Concourse in Aidekman Art Center until April 16.