Forum kicks off NU Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Lauren Caruba

“Why do all the Asian kids sit together?” was the question on the table for students, administrators and faculty members Monday evening. About 150 people gathered in Hardin Hall to discuss cultural clubs and self-segregation as part of the Northwestern community’s celebration of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

The discussion forum and dinner, called “Why do all the Asian kids sit together?” was organized by asianNUproject, a student initiative, in collaboration with For Members Only and Alianza. Students on the Asian American Studies advisory board established asianNUproject last October as an effort to unify Asian and Asian American students across campus.

Nitasha Sharma, a professor of both African American and Asian studies, provided students with a framework for discussion. In a short speech, she talked about how the multicultural organization of the University contributes to the “fractured” and “divided” nature of the NU campus.

“It’s important to know how this segregating is already built into the structure of the University before you have arrived,” Sharma told the students.

Students were then randomly broken up into small groups, with facilitators moderating the discussions.

A number of administrators attended the forum, including President Morton Schapiro, Dean of Students Burgwell Howard and Patricia Telles-Irvin, vice president of student affairs.

Schapiro participated in discussions with students, discussing issues of racial and cultural identity, as well as the pressure students feel to stay with their “group.”

He said he found the students’ insights to be “fascinating.” He noted that the event attracted students from a wide array of cultural backgrounds and allowed them to interact with each other.

“I think it’s wonderful that the Asian American voice is being heard along with all the other voices in this community,” Schapiro said.

Pamela Hung, an organizer of both the asianNUproject and Monday’s forum, said members of the group approached Schapiro about the forum to ensure he could attend. The idea for the forum arose from topics regularly brought up at asianNUproject meetings, she said.

“We would have a lot of discussions about why Asians will self-segregate, and also all types of groups,” the Weinberg senior said. “We wanted to bring these conversations outside of these meetings.”

Hung said the event provides an opportunity for students to confront issues about race outside of the classroom. She said the online RSVP for the event had allotted space for 120 attendees, but the great interest in the event exceeded the room’s capacity, causing extra students to be directed to a balcony area above the hall.

Hung added that the event had “perfect timing” in light of the discussions about diversity held across campus in reaction to the outcry after the Ski Team’s controversial Beer Olympics last week.

“The whole school is interested in this issue because of what happened,” Hung said. “Now we’re providing them with the perfect medium to talk about it.”

McCormick sophomore Jolo Aguilar, a member of asianNUproject, said the forum is a mature student reaction to both the Ski Team party and also the incident in January in which a Latina student said she was verbally harassed by a group of girls while she walked home.

“After the responses to those specific incidences, now we’re moving on to more general discussions to help people better understand each other,” he said.

Schapiro said students should confront these issues of diversity and cultural sensitivity without being prompted by negative events.

“You should always have discussions about diversity, whether there are incidents or not,” Schapiro said.

The forum is one of nearly 20 events organized by various student groups this month to celebrate Asian heritage. Other types of events planned include concerts, speakers and cultural festivals. The celebration efforts of asianNUproject will culminate in the Pride Rally, a march on May 24 down Sheridan Road to the Rock.

Carolyn Chen, director of the Asian American Studies Program, said the forum and other events this month will help Asian and Asian American students gain a presence on the NU campus.

“They often feel invisible at this University,” Chen said. “That might seem really strange because you would feel like you see them all the time. They’re in your classes, they’re over 20 percent of the student population, and yet they feel invisible.”

In an email sent to the student body last week, NU Provost Dan Linzer recognized both the forum and several other upcoming Asian heritage events, which, according to Chen, is the first time he has publicly done so.

Linzer said he wanted to open up more channels of communication to inform students about events occurring on campus.

“This is one of those concentrated ways in which people can gain a better understanding of what people from a different culture from their own are,” he said. “That enriches our lives.”

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