Jillian Cuzzolino knew the time was right to push for change at Rutgers University.
It was spring semester 2021, one year into the Covid-19 pandemic and a time when attacks against Asian Americans were surging nationwide.
Cuzzolino, a School of Arts and Sciences student and a leader in the Rutgers Asian Student Council, began laying the groundwork for a program she had long envisioned for Rutgers: a minor in Asian American studies.
“So many things were becoming salient to everyone, including the urgent need for political empowerment and personal understanding," says Cuzzolino a class of 2022 political science graduate. “The minor was our way of taking back our narrative and channeling our energy into something positive, productive, and long-term.”
Asian American students at other schools felt the same way, especially during a time of racial reckoning informed by the Black Lives Matter movement. Dartmouth University students circulated a petition and called on the school’s leadership to increase offerings in Asian American studies, saying such programs were “central to our liberal arts education.” Students at Davidson College in North Carolina and Georgetown University are also seeking Asian American studies programs, The New York Times reported.
Cuzzolino and other Rutgers students rolled up their sleeves and got to work. They scoured Degree Navigator to find courses, researched programs at other colleges, and worked with faculty in the Department of American Studies to develop the minor.
It became official in 2022. Rutgers–New Brunswick undergraduates can now minor in Asian American studies—a historic addition to the curriculum, like programs in Africana and Puerto Rican studies that emerged at Rutgers in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“The students were just amazingly dedicated,” says Jefferson Decker, American studies chair. “They pushed this forward.”
Decker noted that faculty in American studies have long sought to study the American experience from many perspectives. In recent years the department has added a minor in Comparative and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, offered courses such as “Islam in/and America,” and hired its first Native American professor with an eye toward increasing offerings in Indigenous studies.
“The Asian American studies minor was a need we wanted to fill,” Decker said.
There was a deep need for an academic understanding of the Asian American experience because while we all have our own individual understanding, we need the historical background, the nuances, the context, and the depth to truly understand our experience.
Allan Punzalan Isaac, a professor of American studies and English who had previously developed an Asian American studies certificate program, said the minor was long overdue.
“I met with student leaders over the years who were vocal in their demands for more courses on the Asian American experience,” says Isaac, who is also an associate dean in the Division of Humanities. “Rutgers has now taken an important step to engage with the transnational complexity of our student’s experience and that of American culture as a whole.”
If Isaac’s course in “Asian American Literatures in English” is any indication, the new minor will become a student staple. His class on a recent Monday morning was packed with students who engaged in a lively discussion of Julie Otsuka’s searing novel When the Emperor was Divine about a Japanese American family sent to an internment camp during World War II.
“Violence was not particular or special, but it was every day, and then actually peaks at this moment of anti-Japanese sentiment,” Isaac said in discussing the daily lives of the characters.
Asian Americans had the fastest population growth rate among all racial and ethnic groups in the United States between 2000 and 2019, growing from 10.5 million to 18.9 million, according to research by the Pew Forum. At Rutgers, Asians make up 23 percent of the student population. At Rutgers–New Brunswick, undergraduates can join the Asian American Identities & Images Living Learning Community, which combines a residential environment and curricular activities.
Despite the growth, students of Asian descent say they often feel cut off from their history.
“Asian American students haven’t had the access or the exposure to their history, and there are a multitude of reasons for that,” says Emily Chow SAS'23 who worked with Cuzzolino to develop the minor.
Chow says one reason is that the traditional priorities of immigrant families to establish a home and advance in American society can leave little room for understanding and processing their history, which in the case of Asian Americans, includes significant struggles with white racism going back to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
“There’s this myth of the model minority in which you’re supposed to quietly do your work, advance, and not make waves,” says Chow. “And I think for many of us, that myth is highly detrimental and serves to make our history invisible.”
Cuzzolino agreed. Born in China and adopted by white American parents, she grew up in New Jersey struggling to understand her transracial adoptee identity, feeling neither a part of her predominantly white suburb nor the Chinese American community that maintained strong cultural ties to China. At Rutgers, she began seeking out courses with a focus on the Asian American experience and found that many other students felt the same need to seek out and explore their history.
That need became critical during the isolation of the pandemic and the wave of anti-Asian violence and hate crimes.
“Suddenly you saw all these articles educating the public about the Chinese Exclusion Act or the model minority myth,” Cuzzolino says. “These components of the Asian American experience are just as valid as any other subject. Asian American history is American history and it should be taught in all learning spaces, such as the minor—not just as the result of a crisis.”
Students opting for the minor can study the Asian American experience through a range of fields, and in courses like “The Thirty Years' War: America in Vietnam,” “Globalization, Sex and Family,” and “A-Bomb Literature and Film in Japan.”
Although Cuzzolino and Chow both graduate before having the opportunity to take the minor, they’re thrilled that future generations will have this structured set of courses and academic community to learn and grow in their identity as Asian Americans.
“There was a deep need for an academic understanding of the Asian American experience,” Chow said. “Because while we all have our own individual understanding, we need the historical background, the nuances, the context, and the depth to truly understand our experience.”
Cuzzolino hopes one day to see a full major in Asian American studies.
She said that the Asian American students at Rutgers have developed strong institutions, like the Asian Student Council, and she cited the support of faculty at American studies, as well as staff leaders at the Asian American Cultural Center.
“There are so many more people paying attention now,” she said.
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