The following is written by Asian Alumni and Student Oral History Project Intern Jin Chang
This a multi-part series reconstructing the history of the Asian American Coalition, a pan-ethnic Asian American student group from 1998-2017. This first entry will trace out both the historical context preceding the founding of the organization as well as the initial meeting which would jumpstart the Asian American Coalition.
The University of Iowa has a long history of student organizations that serve Asian students, but prior to 1998, many of these organizations were based on a singular ethnicity or nationality, such as the Vietnamese Student Association, Taiwanese Student Association, and PERMIDAS, an Indonesian student organization. There were also student organizations that served facets of the Asian American community at the intersection of other identities and professional affiliations including the Asian American Women’s Group and the Asian American Law Student Association (now called the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association). Together, these organizations served specific communities in the wider umbrella term of Asian American.
While student led organizations provided informal support systems for Asian identifying students, institutional support for Asian Americans at the University of Iowa was severely lacking in the late 1990s. During this time, the University of Iowa hired the first Asian man in the University Counseling Center, Dr. Dau-shen Ju, who had received a counseling psychology PhD from the University of Iowa. One of his first assigned tasks was to help fill the gap of resources for Asian American students on campus. He decided to create a presentation that highlighted the lack of resources on campus titled “Asian Americans: Am I Invisible?” which drew a mix of roughly a dozen undergraduate and graduate students together ranging from MFA students in the Writers’ Workshop, PhD students in English and Communication Studies, and law school students.
Listen to Dr. Dau-shen Ju recount the lack of resources for Asian American students on campus in the fall of 1998:
Instead of Dr. Ju providing a formal presentation to this diverse group of students, they all sat in a circle together and began talking about their own Asian American experiences reflective of their induvial lives. This helped students recognize their shared experiences as Asian Americans on campus and in Iowa. The conversation in the group highlighted issues shared within the Asian American community including the invisibility that comes with living in a white/black racial binary and the lack of resources for Asian Americans at the University.
Here law student Ian Hirokawa describes what happened in that first meeting “Asian Americans: Am I Invisible” on September 21st 1998:
The students who initially attended Dr. Ju’s presentation would become the original leaders of the Asian American Coalition. This early meeting included Evelyn Ho, a Chinese American PhD student born in California who felt her Asian identity become uniquely racialized in Iowa in ways that never happened in California or Seattle where she went to college; Anthony Pham, a Vietnamese American undergraduate student raised in Iowa who felt he did not quite belong in the Vietnamese Student Association; Xuefan Sun a first generation immigrant from China who arrived to America at the age of fourteen who felt uniquely different from American Born Chinese (ABC’s) and the international students from China.
Hear Dr. Evelyn Ho share her memories of moving to Iowa and the racialization she experienced:
After the initial meeting, one graduate student in attendance, Ray Mescallado, suggested that the group meet again as there were many more conversations to be had. While the original cohort of members could not pinpoint the exact moment when they transitioned this informal discussion group into the Asian American Coalition as a student organization, this initial meeting was certainly the beginning of what would become a pan-ethnic umbrella organization for all Asian Americans at the University of Iowa.
The next blog will look at the early years of the Asian American Coalition.