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During her Advanced Placement U.S. history class in high school, A.J. Saquilayan noticed a glaring absence in the curriculum.

The class tackled economic crises, wars and other issues. But only a few lessons, she said, covered Asian American history. And almost no time was spent on the history of her own ethnic group: Filipinos, who began arriving in North America in the late 16th century.

“I always felt alienated and unimportant when Asian Americans were mentioned,” Saquilayan said. “We were mentioned [as] enemies to the U.S., and also as people that needed to be saved from themselves.”

So when the now-22-year-old enrolled at the University of Maryland at College Park in 2019, she added her voice to calls for the university to expand its Asian American studies program. In March, she and other students helped organize a town hall to discuss the issue. Since then, the university’s provost, Jennifer King Rice, has said she supports creating a tenure-track position for a professor in Asian American studies, according to U-Md. spokeswoman Katie Lawson.

Across the country, a movement to expand Asian American studies is gaining steam. In April, Fordham University announced that it would offer a minor in the subject; Williams College announced its own program in December. Students at Tufts University and the University of North Carolina are calling for more Asian American studies courses. And in the spring, the University of New Mexico began offering its first such introductory course, while Duke University graduated its first cohort of Asian American and diaspora studies minors.

The movement reflects a heightened awareness of racism against Asians and Asian Americans that became worse during the coronavirus pandemic, say student and faculty advocates, and an overall push for more ethnic studies, including with a focus on Latinos and Indigenous people, in colleges and universities across the country. Brown University began offering a major in critical Native American and Indigenous studies in the spring.

This is happening at the same time as African American studies has faced pushback in states including Florida. There, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and state officials rejected an initial version of the Advanced Placement African American studies course in the state’s high schools, calling it an example of “indoctrination.” The AP course has come under scrutiny in at least four other states — Arkansas, Virginia, North Dakota and Mississippi. Yet, in May, DeSantis signed a bill requiring Asian American and Pacific Islander studies in Florida’s K-12 education.

It is worrisome that Asian American studies are blossoming just as officials crack down on Black studies in Florida, said Renee Tajima-Peña, a professor of Asian American studies at UCLA.

“Many of us see [the Florida mandate] as a divisive tactic, once more using Asian Americans as a racial wedge, given the state’s attacks on Black studies,” she said.

Suppressing Black studies while bolstering Asian American studies has negative consequences for both communities, said Rich Lee, the director of the Asian American studies program at the University of Minnesota. “This pushback against ‘critical race theory’ and African American studies is, in my view, a representation of how legislators often try to use Asian Americans as a racial wedge,” he said. “This is how the model minority stereotype was created.”

Fewer than 100 American colleges and universities offer Asian American studies programs, according to the Association for Asian American Studies. Data from the University of California at Berkeley indicates that only 52 U.S. colleges and universities offer dedicated Asian American studies programs. Eighty-nine offer dedicated Latino studies programs, according to that data, and African American studies programs are more prevalent: 252 U.S. colleges and universities offer such programs. Three-quarters of 1,777 colleges and universities surveyed offered some form of Black studies, according to a 2013 study by the University of Illinois.

More Asian American studies programs would allow for a fuller representation of the community’s history and politics, advocates said. Frances Leung, a rising junior at Williams College, said that when she was growing up, she found that Chinese American history was often boiled down to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which restricted Chinese immigration to the United States.

“Asian American studies … is necessary to provide a more well-rounded education, especially concerning aspects of history that are not fully taught in high school,” said Leung, a member of Asian American Students in Action, a group that spearheaded the effort for Williams College’s Asian American studies program.

Hopefully, she said, the trajectory of the program at Williams will follow that of Africana studies, which will be offered as a major next year. “We would really like, and have been pushing for, the hiring of Asian American faculty who can just focus on the program,” she said, adding that the lack of dedicated faculty has prevented students from writing honors theses in Asian American studies.

The country’s first Asian American studies curriculums were offered in California in the 1960s, including at UC Berkeley. At the same time, similar campaigns were pushing for Latino and Black studies.

“There was this blossoming of solidarity and [a] parallel development of the Asian American movement … with the Chicano movement, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans,” said Tajima-Peña, the UCLA professor.

But significant progress remains to be made, she said.

Tajima-Peña, who is Japanese American, said she hoped to major in Asian American studies when she attended Harvard University in the 1970s. Harvard offered an African American studies major but no Latino or Asian American programs.

“Even now, there’s no Asian American studies program,” Tajima-Peña said of her alma mater. “That’s embarrassing.”

Asked about the lack of an Asian American studies department, Rachael Dane, a Harvard spokeswoman, pointed to the university’s recent hiring of professors and the provision of greater funding for academic research in that subject area.

In the University of New Mexico’s Asian American studies introductory course, launched this year, the school prioritized teaching on the many facets of Asian American identity, including the histories of immigrants from West Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, school officials said.

The UNM course, said instructor Shebati Sengupta, covers a variety of authors and topics, including the 1960s Delano grape strike in California that was launched by Filipino farmworkers. Last semester, 15 undergraduate students enrolled; some in the group are of Asian descent, and others not.

“These histories are just important for people of all identities to know,” Sengupta said.

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