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Duke launches Asian American Studies Program after years of student efforts

After more than a decade of student activism for an Asian American Studies Program at Duke, the University has officially launched the program.

The Asian American Studies Working Group officially announced the creation of the program with a post on its Facebook page and formal launch of its website April 27. The program will not offer a major, minor or certificate to start, but its creation is the first step toward establishing those options.

“The push for Asian American Studies at Duke has been ongoing since 2002, but there have been no real institutional changes until now,” junior Helen Yang, a member of the AASWG, wrote in an email. “The creation of an official program, despite not actually being able to implement a major/minor/certificate program alongside [it], means that some kind of tangible action is happening.”

The junior said the group found out mid-semester that the program would be established, but made the official announcement and website launch after an unofficial meeting Friday, she explained.

Nayoung Aimee Kwon, associate professor in the department of Asian and Middle Eastern studies, is the director of the new program. She said she was drawn to the program because of the students' activism. 

Sophomore Annie Yang, also a member of the AASWG, noted that the group is cognizant about sustaining the momentum generated this year as its leaders graduate and new students are brought into the effort. 

“I think it can be easy for administration to believe that they’ve appeased us for now and that they can wait for us to graduate, so they won’t need to establish a certificate, minor and major,” Annie Yang wrote. “However, we really want to see this program thrive and become the full-fledged department we know it is capable of being at a pace that matches the enthusiasm that we know students have for Asian American Studies.”

So far, the program has recruited a postdoctoral fellow who will begin teaching classes in the fall and a tenure-track professor, who will be joining the ranks of the theater studies department. Ryan Ku, who recently earned a Ph.D. from the University of California at Irvine, is the postdoctoral fellow and will be teaching “Introduction to Asian American Literature” in the fall.

Annie Yang noted that achieving milestone victories such as developing a minor or major can be a long process. She pointed to the creation of Northwestern University’s Asian American Studies Program, noting that it took the school more than 20 years to institute a major after students protested with a hunger strike.

Previously, questions have been raised about whether there would be enough student interest in the subject to warrant a program. Ku’s class for the fall semester currently has only four out of 15 seats taken, Annie Yang added. But she pointed to a recent class with Asian American ties as having had extremely strong interest—“Chinatown." With 56 enrolled students, it accepted more than the original capped number. 

“The incoming first-years have yet to register, so there’s still a possibility that more students will be joining the class [on Asian American Literature], but having a good showing for these first AASP classes is important,” Annie Yang wrote.

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