Jeffrey Kho, a second year at UCLA, has come to expect the looks of surprise when he tells his fellow students that he is double majoring in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology and Asian American Studies. They question why he is majoring in Asian American Studies, a field which many students consider impractical, with no real career opportunities.
As a freshman at UCLA, Kho had the same belief about Asian American Studies. In high school, he was a science person who excelled in his courses. He studied hard and received good grades. The next logical step was to pursue a career in the hard sciences, which made him declare MCDB as an incoming freshman. Asian American Studies as a field of study had not even been on his list of possible majors.
Kho is clearly not the only student who thought it would be unlikely for him to major in Asian American Studies. In a survey done by Cal State LA’s Asian and Asian American Studies (AAAS) Department, 50% of the students surveyed answered that they were “unlikely” to major in AAAS if an Asian American Studies option was included. More than half of the students surveyed answered that they were “unlikely” to pursue an M.A. in AAAS as well.
It wasn’t until he took Asian American History for his History G.E. that his viewpoint changed. He says that his high school had a very Euro-centric history education, but the Asian American History class taught him the history of Asian Americans. “[Asian American Studies] is a really powerful way to get in touch with the history that’s been forgotten,” Kho says.
The class also discussed the model minority myth, which suggests that Asian Americans are successful academically and socioeconomically simply because they are “Asian,” rather than because of their hard work and dedication. Before taking the class, Kho had also bought into the model minority myth. “Things were good [for me],” he says. “Why should I care?”
But now, Kho considers majoring in both MCDB and Asian American Studies as the natural step towards his future career. The two majors complement each other, especially since Kho is interested in pursuing a career with public health. He cites higher cancer rates among Asian Americans, as well as lower access to health care for Southeast Asian Americans, as areas of interest for him. For Kho, MCDB gives him the tools to understand the science behind health, and Asian American Studies provides the perspective with which to understand the social issues behind disparities in health as well as health care.
Professor Jinqi Ling, head of the Asian American Studies Department at UCLA, also emphasizes the highly complementary and interdisciplinary nature of Asian American Studies. He says that the faculty has many areas of expertise, like public health, anthropology, urban planning, psychology, public policy, and literature. Asian American Studies is not merely a field of theory, but a practical one that is heavily imbued with a sense of community and service. After all, the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA was founded in 1969 as a way for Asian American students to give back to their communities by conducting research focused specifically on their communities.
In addition to service, Asian American Studies is also a tool for students to understand their identity in the world. Before the term “Asian Americans” was coined, they were known as “Orientals.” According to Professor Lucy Burns of the UCLA Asian American Studies department, the intellectual knowledge that the major provides students with an understanding of themselves in the national and global context.
Moreover, it helps students develop their own identity as well. Professor Ling says, “One of the things Asian American Studies does is raise the students’ Asian American consciousness and make them more aware of history, community, and the relevance of this kind of education to the potential transformation of society.”
For Jeffrey Kho, reaffirming his own Asian American identity through the major became directly linked to his community, and he encourages others to take the same approach. “Ethnic Studies really helps to awake people to the need for getting involved in the community and getting involved politically,” he says.
Not only that, but Asian American Studies affects students on a much more personal, microscopic scale as well. Natasha Saelua, an Asian American Masters student at UCLA, said that the self-knowledge that Asian American Studies, and ethnic studies in general, gives students the ability to reflect that knowledge out to their friends and family, pushing their assumptions and norms.
Armed with this knowledge, students and professors involved in Asian American Studies today still strive to not only to define themselves, but to give back to their communities. The ways in which they do this are unique and diverse: Professor Robert Nakamura makes documentaries about the Asian American community; Ninez Ponce, an Associate Professor at the UCLA School of Public Health, serves on the Executive Board of the Asian American and Pacific Islander Caucus of the American Public Health Association; Natasha Saelua researches the long-term impacts of the education access group Pacific Islander Education & Outreach (PIER).
The intersections within Asian American Studies with other fields, such as film-making and public health, may come as a surprise to some people. But for students like Kho, Asian American Studies unlocks pathways to different careers. Kho says that he could have gone into research, but he now sees the possibility of going into public health and addressing the concerns and needs of Asian Americans, where there is a higher rate of cancer.
“Knowledge is one thing,” Kho says, “but application is another. Asian American Studies gives me the critical perspective to see what I’m going to do with the biology I’m learning.”