History of Asian American Studies

Asian American Studies has had a dynamic history spanning the last forty years to become a major field of study at national universities. The initial movement for Asian American Studies came out of the Third World Movement of the Civil Rights Era brought attention to the various American ethnic minorities and how they fit into the national picture. The movement shook the entire country and at Princeton its legacy can be seen in the Fields Center, formerly known as the Third World Center. For Asian American Studies though, Third World Movement protests had the largest overall effect in universities located nearby large Asian American communities. Students were outraged by the squalid conditions of the ethnic enclaves in major cities that disproved the national dream of an idealized America. In the San Francisco area, Chinatown’s terrible poverty and social conditions spurred on the anger.[1] Thus, protests in 1969 led to the creation of the first programs in Asian American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley and at San Francisco State College (since renamed San Francisco State University).[2]

Similar developments occurred outside of the Bay Area soon thereafter. At the University of California at Los Angeles in 1970, a program in Asian American Studies was created without the same level of student protests as other colleges experienced. UCLA’s Asian American Studies program was initially part of an initiative by University of California Chancellor Charles Young to create an “American Cultures Project”.[3] Then on the East Coast, the City College of New York (now City University of New York) created an Asian American Studies Program under their Asian Studies Program in 1971 after protests emerged based around New York’s Chinatown and Flushing district. Combined, these programs led to this new field gaining nation-wide interest. [4]Driven by a desire to ameliorate conditions in these communities, the goal was to bridge the gap of academia and the outside world.

In the 1970s, Asian American Studies went through an era of self-discovery. Early programs were slimmed down because of the 1973 economic crisis and the departure of radical groups devoted solely to politics. This turmoil led to the emergence of Asian American Studies as a scholarly community without as many political elements. UCLA was at the front of this movement as this university began in 1971 to publish Amerasia journal, the first publication devoted to research on Asian Americans.[5] They also published Roots: An Asian American Reader, which served as the primary textbook used in 1970s introductory Asian American Studies courses around the nation.[6] People devoted to teaching Asian American Studies so as to prepare students to deal with ethnic issues in the outside world took over established programs. They created structured curricula that included the study of Asian American arts, gender, and race relations in addition to the initial historical aspect that dominated the field.[7]

Seeing their progress, student groups in the 1980s started a new wave of advocacy for programs, though this time most of the activism was on the East Coast. Of particular note was the East Coast Asian Student Union, ECASU, which is now ECAASU or the East Coast Asian American Student Union. ECASU was founded at Princeton in 1978 by college students from Ivy League and private universities to advocate for greater awareness of Asian American issues and the creation of new programs in Asian American Studies.[8] ECAASU continues to have annual conferences, with one at Columbia University having occurred in February 2013. The group made Asian American Studies the specific focus of a 1984 task force created and their 1987 conference.[9] Similar groups also emerged on the West Coast and Midwest with the same goal of pulling together university students to promote awareness of Asian American issues.

Then in 1987 the first Asian American Studies Program at an Ivy League university was founded at Cornell. Courses were taught sporadically at other universities such as Boston University, Brown, Harvard, Hunter, Smith, Tufts, Wellesley, and Princeton. But, the lack of formalized programs resulted in these classes slowly dwindling in number.[10] Then, in the late 1990s there was a surge in new Asian American Studies programs as they emerged at the University of Pennsylvania (1996)[11], Stanford (1997)[12] and Columbia (1999)[13] among other schools.

In academia, Asian American Studies has also expanded dramatically since the late 1970s. In 1979, the Association for Asian American Studies was created to create a national forum for discussion between academics in the field and promote Asian American Studies in universities across the country. Past presidents of the Association have included Gary Okihiro, a visiting professor at Princeton in Spring 2013, and Franklin Odo ’61, a visiting professor at Princeton next Fall 2013.[14] Furthermore, there has been a proliferation in scholarship. Amerasia is by no means the only journal on Asian American Studies that exists today.  The Association for Asian American Studies started publishing the Journal of Asian American Studies in February of 1998.[15] In 1989 the Harvard Kennedy School began the Asian American Policy Review to explore Asian Americans and the law[16] and AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Nexus has been published by UCLA since 2003.[17]

That leads us to the current day and our ongoing effort to establish Asian American Studies at Princeton. If we could introduce such a program to our university, the potential for further expansion of Asian American Studies is tremendous. Our university has long set the standard for excellent programming and cutting-edge academic research.  Beyond preparing students to live in a world where Asian American issues will have increasing importance in society, Princeton affirming that the legitimacy of the Asian American field will have resounding effects throughout the intellectual community. We will not only bring change to our university, but hopefully to the country on the whole. Our position is a critical one. We ought to utilize it to its full potential.


[1] William Wei, The Asian American Movement. (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1993), 14.

[2] Ibid,, 132.

[3] Ibid., 136.

[4] Ibid., 134.

[5] “About Amerasia Jounral,” Ameraisa Journal: Aisna American/ Pacific Islander/ Transnational Societies. http://www.amerasiajournal.org/blog/?page_id=2.

[6] Wei, The Asian American Movement, 136.

[7] Wei, The Asian American Movement, 149.

[8] History, East Coast Asian American Student Union, http://www.ecaasu.org/site/history/.

[9] Wei, The Asian American Movement, 153.

[10] Wei, The Asian American Movement, 153.

[11] Asian American Studies Program, University of Pennsylvania, http://asam.sas.upenn.edu/.

[12] Asian American Studies, Stanford University, http://aas.stanford.edu/.

[13] About Us, Columbia University Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, http://www.columbia.edu/cu/cser/about.html.

[14] Board of Directors, Association for Asian American Studies, http://aaastudies.org/content/index.php/about-aaas/about-aaas.

[15] Journal of Asian American Studies, The Johns Hopkins University Press, http://www.press.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_asian_american_studies/.

[16] Mission Statement and Overview, Harvard Kennedy School: Student Journal: Asian American Policy Review, http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k74751&pageid=icb.page392469.

[17] AAPI Nexus Journal: Policy, Practice, Community, UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press, http://www.aapinexus.org/.

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