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Northwestern University
Picture of the Asian American studies strike.left

Faculty approve major in Asian American Studies

After 25 years of student activism that included protests, petitions and a headline-grabbing hunger strike, a new major in Asian American studies will debut this fall.

Shalini Shankar, director of Northwestern’s Asian American studies program, said the new major is “a monumental victory” resulting from “the tireless efforts of past and present students and faculty who all believe in the scholarly merits and importance of Asian American studies.”

Students first began campaigning for an Asian American studies program in 1991, leading marches down Sheridan Road and teaching classes on the topic themselves. University administrators, however, denied their requests for a formal program in the early 1990s.

The activism intensified in April 1995 when dozens of students representing the Asian American Advisory Board staged a much-publicized 23-day hunger strike at the Rock. One of the original strikers, Charles Chun ’97, reportedly lost 20 pounds during the strike’s first 12 days.

The lobbying continued into the 1998-99 school year, culminating in a campus rally and a petition signed by hundreds of students calling for an Asian American studies program covering the history, culture and politics of Asians in the United States. Those efforts spurred the creation of the Asian American studies program in 1999 and a minor that now features courses in literature, history, cultural studies, anthropology, sociology and more. 

A full-fledged major, however, remained elusive, even as students declared ad-hoc majors in Asian American studies.

“This confirmed student demand and encouraged the Asian American studies faculty to act on their shared commitment to the academic value of Asian American studies as a core part of the arts and science curriculum,” said Shankar, an associate professor of anthropology.

With the approval of the major in February and the support of Weinberg College Dean Adrian Randolph, the students’ 25-year campaign came to a successful close. 

“None of this would have been possible without the previous years of work by students and faculty,” said Kevin Luong ’16, a political science major and Asian American studies minor who spearheaded recent actions, including a student petition and a letter drive in support of the major from community organizations and Northwestern alumni.

The new major will feature core courses on Asian migration and contemporary communities, ethnic relations and culture, as well as opportunities for field research and elective courses on topics such as media and religion.

Luong said the new major will broaden the array of ethnic studies already offered at Northwestern. “Growing [ethnic studies] benefits everyone,” Luong said. “It spotlights the narratives and histories of marginalized communities while providing innovative approaches to research and learning.”    

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