Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

A Practical Ethnic Studies Program

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

A Practical Ethnic Studies Program

Article excerpt

The Asian American Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston complements students' career tracks and engages them in the surrounding Asian American community.

For many educators, large numbers of graduates are not only a bragging right but a goal. But those involved in the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston are quite comfortable producing only one or two graduates annually - despite boasting one of the largest programs of its kind among New England schools.

UMass Boston faculty don't encourage many students to major in Asian American studies. Instead, students typically delve into Asian topics alongside a major such as nursing, management or criminal justice. Why?

Faculty want students to earn degrees leading directly to careers. Like ethnic studies programs everywhere, a bachelor's in Asian American studies often leads to graduate school.

"So many of our students are working class, they need to be practical and support their families," says Dr. Peter Kiang, a professor of education and director of the UMass Boston Asian American Studies Program. "We want our program to complement engineering or accounting or any other career."

Adds Dr. Elora Chowdhury, assistant professor of women's studies: "That vision holds everyone on faculty together."

In 2006, more than half of all 12,000 UMass Boston students were first-generation college-goers, and 63 percent had transferred from elsewhere. More than half the undergraduates were older than 22. Typically, students juggled classes alongside family obligations and at least one job. Asian Americans were no exception at the urban, commuter UMass Boston.

Consequently, Chowdhury, Kiang and 27 other faculty touch as many students as possible through the 27 Asian American courses. The program's size and scope rival those of some West Coast universities. Non-Asians make up more than 20 percent of students taking classes in UMass Boston's program. Courses are as varied as "Asian American Psychology," "Indian Cinema" and "Asian American Politics and Social Movements."

Even if UMass Boston students take only one of the 27 courses, Kiang says, he hopes it not only improves their understanding of ethnicity but also hones their critical thinking skills.

Battling Preconceptions

Faculty concede the scarcity of majors in Asian American studies reflects the lack of familiarity that Asian immigrant families have with the academic field and its related professional opportunities. And, skepticism can be contagious. The academic program's campus-based sister, the Institute for Asian American Studies, often battles preconceptions from potential funders that its research of local ethnic communities has already been undertaken, says Dr. Paul Watanabe, IAAS director.

That's nonsense, says Dr. Gary Orfield, who co-directs the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at the University of California, Los Angeles. He calls the IAAS "an invaluable partner in thinking through Asian issues." When CRP was based at Harvard University, it collaborated with IAAS multiple times. Because IAAS provides littleknown statistics on Asian American demographic trends, education attainment and family poverty rates in the Boston area, it helps dispel myths among policymakers that Asians are uniformly rich and well educated, Orfield says.

Some recent UMass Boston graduates active in Asian American studies have said they learned more there about history and contemporary issues than they thought possible, given their working-class upbringing and limited learning opportunities.

Two of them offered written testimonials at a graduation celebration last May. Dang Huynh, an economics major, emigrated from Vietnam when he was 4 years old. He was the first in his immediate family to graduate from a U.S. college. Judy Mai, a double major in sociology and criminal justice, was born and raised in Boston to Vietnamese refugees. …

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