California State University, Northridge’s Department of Asian American Studies celebrated its landmark 25th anniversary with a rare gathering of the department’s founders, faculty, alumni, students, campus officials and community members on April 23 on campus in the Grand Salon at the University Student Union.
The 25th Anniversary and Student Awards event was a self-reflection of the quarter-century journey of the department’s struggles, successes and the deep commitment to its students, which remains to this day. It honored the department’s founders — former CSUN Vice President of Academic Affairs Bob Suzuki, faculty George Uba, Laura Uba and Warren Furumoto, former department chair Enrique de la Cruz, alumnus Gary Mayeda, and founders not in attendance, including former department chair Kenyon Chan, former faculty members Gordon Nakagawa, Michael Ego and Emily Lawsin. Asian American studies students as well as students from the CSUN Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) also were recognized for their outstanding achievements.
The evening began with student performances. CSUN’s Filipino American Student Association, the campus’ oldest Asian-American student group, performed a traditional Filipino dance called the Tinikling. Members of the Asian-American fraternity Alpha Psi Rho did a step performance and CSUN Asian American studies Alumna and poet Alina Nguyen recited an original piece titled Genealogy.
CSUN Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Yi Li welcomed the 200 attendees on behalf of the university. Li was a young international graduate student of mathematics when he emigrated to the United States, and talked about how as an Asian-American, he discovered the challenges and hardships impacting the Asian-American community while serving as Wright State University’s Dean of the College of Science and Mathematics. He cited the importance of supporting Asian-Americans’ access to higher education.
“Higher education attainment is not just an educational issue, it is actually a social justice issue,” Li said. “It is an issue of our children and our future generation — whether or not they have a good standard of living, whether or not they can achieve their dreams. Higher education is so important to the life of our future and we must, as a higher education [institution], help our community to achieve that goal.”
CSUN Dean of the College of Humanities Elizabeth Say, who earned her bachelor’s degree at the university, reflected on seeing the department grow.
“Watching the Asian American studies department develop has been one of the great joys of being part of this college,” Say said. “They have tremendous faculty, amazing students, and their staff are outstanding. I’ve never known a group of faculty who are more committed to their students than the faculty of Asian American Studies — we have ones who are just as committed, but not more committed.”
John Lee, chief of staff for Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch Englander and a CSUN alumnus, presented a proclamation by the city recognizing the historic achievement of the CSUN Department of Asian American Studies, which was the second in the nation to gain departmental status.
Former Vice President for Academic Affairs Suzuki, who taught Asian American studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst before coming to CSUN, highlighted the importance of the positive impact that Asian American studies has on student achievement. Suzuki — who was mentioned throughout the night by faculty and other founders as being the key figure who made the Asian American studies department possible by pushing for a department and not just a program — put the attention on the important work of the students and faculty who pressed for Asian Americans studies during the late 1980s.
“The idea of Asian American studies came about from students who felt they needed to take some courses in Asian American studies,” Suzuki said. “They worked with some of the few Asian-American faculty we had at that time [to draft a position paper] on why we needed Asian American studies.”
CSUN alumnus Mayeda, who was one of the student pioneers who worked on the position paper in the late 1980s, also spoke about what it was like to fight for an Asian American studies program during a time when Asian-American students faced much more hostility, discrimination and alienation from greater society. Mayeda helped form the Asian Pacific Student Association and organized an Asian-American cultural awareness week that helped bring visibility to Asian-Americans on campus. He said he admired the department today and the milestone it has reached.
“As a student I never would have dreamed it would be this big,” Mayeda said. “But you just know when something is good and you know something is there for you — not only for you, but for the community and greater Los Angeles. We just never realized it would be this impactful.”
After more founders spoke, the attention turned to the students who were also being rewarded for their excellence and contributions to the department. Dozens of students from EOP were given “Promising Freshman” awards, celebrating the strong connection between the department and EOP. Over a dozen Asian American studies majors and double majors received awards, such as the Promising Sophomore and Transfer Award, Community Builders Award, Promising Future Teacher Award, Donna Kawamoto Special Achievement Award, Laura Uba Academic Achievement Award, Enrique de la Cruz Social Justice Award and the Kenyon Chan Leadership Award.
In thanking the department, the students spoke about how crucial the department has been, not only to their academic success as students, but to their well-being, sense of self and world view.
Asian American studies major Cielito Fernandez, who won the Kenyon Chan Leadership Award for her positive influence among students, said the department helped her to realize who she is as an Asian-American and as a CSUN student.
“Asian American studies made me realize my potential as a student,” Fernandez said. “My capacity as a person has expanded and I believe in myself a lot more. Asian American studies is so important — if you don’t study it, you will forget about the hard work of previous generations. It can provide a road to self-actualization in this society, especially when as a person of color, you don’t physically fit into the larger narrative.”
Asian American studies major Lorenzo Mutia, who won the Enrique de la Cruz Social Justice Award, said Asian American studies gave him a sense of empowerment.
“What Asian American studies means to me is realizing the power that exists in the communities we live in,” Mutia said. “There are a lot of unheard stories in the mainstream. There are so many positive assets in our communities that aren’t heard about out there, that are kind of lying in secret, waiting to be used. A lot of times we are told that what we have to offer does not matter. Asian America Studies gives us an outlet to be utilized for the benefit of ourselves and others.”
Asian American studies alumni also spoke of their gratitude to the department for helping shape their identities and prepare them for their adult lives.
“Coming into my identity as an Asian-American person was based on learning about multiple histories and multiple experiences, of different trials and tribulations,” said alumnus Jean-Paul deGuzman, who teaches Asian American studies at University of California, Santa Barbara. “American American studies has a dual purpose — on the one hand it’s personal, it’s about situating our own identities and stories, and on a practical and a more political level, it helps students to think critically about the world around them, to deconstruct what they see in the media, in history books and in the news. Those tools are very powerful no matter what profession you move on to.”
Alumna Emi Vallega, who is currently coordinating Communications and Resource Development at Pilipino Workers Center as well as at the California Domestic Workers Coalition, said Asian American studies transformed her academic life and inspired her to work in community organizing.
“Walking into my first class with professor Laura Uba changed my life,” Vallega said. “Learning more about your own history — because you don’t get that in regular school — was important for me. You don’t hear about yourself and your family in mainstream history classes. Developing my own consciousness around my own familial issues and being able to discuss them was very powerful for me.”
Alumnus CJ Berina, who owns a store called Collective Lifestyle LA in Northridge and was just awarded a $15,000 grant from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office to do an arts activation campaign on Reseda Blvd. this summer, said he learned from Asian American studies that the most important thing in life is making the world a better place.
“One thing we are doing with our company is change the world in a positive way,” Berina said. “Everything that we do is for people. A lot of people start businesses to make a profit, but we started it for the people. We wanted to provide culture to the Valley, through fashion, music art and live events and fill a need [for arts] in the Valley. Life is all about the people around you, serving the people and not just yourself.”
Asian American studies professor Allan Aquino, who served as the master of ceremonies for the event, reflected the same sentiment back to the students with his own message of thanks.
“You, our students, are the heartbeat of our purpose,” Aquino said. “You will always be the source of our joy, our reason to get up each morning, our reason to embrace our calling as educators — this is a calling, not just a job. And I for one am proud to embrace all of you as comrades and as dear friends, and members of a community family. No matter what happens in the rest of our lives, our hearts are full of joy right here, right now, because all of you are here and we love you.”