A Milestone for Asian-American Alumni

Their first-ever University-wide summit highlights progress and challenges at Harvard.

At the Asian AmeriCAn alumni summit—the group's first-ever University-wide gathering—even the menu seemed symbolic. Attendees at the opening reception on October 15 mingled over drinks and Korean barbecue beef—fitting considering the audience, but also one of the most popular dishes in the College dining halls today, and thus perhaps a subtle sign of the Asian-American community's growing influence within Harvard. The summit celebrated progress made since the 1970s, when an Asian-American presence was virtually nonexistent on campus, and examined remaining challenges faced by Asian Americans today.

Organized by the Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance (HAAAA, one of the more than 40 Shared Interest Groups approved by the Harvard Alumni Association), the three-day event drew more than 400 alumni from six decades and all of Harvard's schools. “We are immeasurably diverse as a group, yet we share many of the same goals," said Jeannie Park ’83, who co-chaired the summit with Jeff Yang ’89. President Drew Faust echoed that sense of solidarity in her remarks at the opening ceremony: "I hope that this is the first of many such gatherings…because your input and your presence mean an enormous amount to us."

The diversity that Park spoke of was evident in the backgrounds of the summit's 50 speakers and presenters, who included Secretary of the Cabinet Chris Lu, J.D. ’91, novelist Gish Jen ’77, and professional poker player Bernard Lee ’92, A.L.M. ’94. The summit events ranged from panels on social entrepreneurship and public service to film screenings and an elevator-pitch competition (in which entrants competed to pitch their ideas for startups, social entrepreneurship, or unproduced artistic works persuasively in eight minutes, and three won $2,500 prizes).

Alumni spanning four decades and a current undergraduate compared stories at the opening plenary session, “Where We Stand: The Changing Asian-American Experience at Harvard.” William F. Lee ’72, managing partner of WilmerHale and the first Asian-American to serve on the Harvard Corporation, spoke of a time when encountering another Asian student at Harvard was a rarity. By the time Jane Bock ’81 arrived on campus in 1977, a critical mass of Asian-American students was ready to be politically organized. They worked to gain minority status for Asians at Harvard, and Bock’s sociology thesis, “The Model Minority in the Meritocracy: Asian-Americans in the Harvard/Radcliffe Admissions Process,” prompted a Department of Justice inquiry into the treatment of Asian-American college applicants. The number of Asian-American students at Harvard doubled in the next four years.

Affirmative action and race-blind admissions were recurrent topics of discussion at the conference. Several speakers expressed concern that enrollment of Asian-American students at Harvard College, currently 17 percent, has remained flat for the past 30 years despite their growing representation in the applicant pool. Philip Lee, J.D. ’00—a doctoral student at the Graduate School of Education, the former assistant director of admissions at Harvard Law School, and another speaker on the plenary session—questioned the idea that the success of so many Asian Americans meant they did not face discrimination. William F. Lee added that he believed law-school admissions should be race-blind, though the current system is not.

The summit was also a forum to advocate academic study of Asian-American culture at Harvard. Eileen Chow ’90, former assistant professor of Chinese literary and cultural studies, who helped develop the Asian-American studies minor track in the East Asian studies program, spoke at the plenary session as well. HAAAA also campaigned heavily for the newly created undergraduate secondary field in ethnic studies. Athena Lao ’12, who was active in the ethnic studies effort and currently serves as co-president of the Asian American Association (AAA) student group on campus, was the youngest speaker at the plenary. She said she sees AAA as a way of bridging the plethora of more ethnically specific Asian cultural groups at Harvard, and wants students identifying with the Asian-American community “to say it proudly.” 

Reaching across divides in the Asian-American community was also a theme in the keynote address by Chris Lu, who as secretary of the Cabinet serves as an assistant to his law school classmate President Obama. Lu emphasized responsibilities beyond Harvard, pointing out that although the “model minority” stereotype applied to all the Harvard graduates in the room, it didn’t necessarily apply to the Hmong high-school dropout. “Let us commit ourselves to those who have not fared as well,” he said. “I put forth that we start in our own community, the Asian-American community.”

When Lu asked the audience to raise their hands if their parents were immigrants, nearly everyone in the room put a hand in the air. “My story is your story. It’s the quintessential immigrant story,” he said after narrating his then 18-year-old father’s arrival in America, which involved a five-day bus ride to Tennessee during which all he ate were the two items he could name in English: hamburgers and milk. Many speakers cited the importance of their immigrant parents having given them the opportunity and, in some cases, the freedom to pursue their dreams.

All the same, if there’s any constant at gatherings of Asian-American Harvard graduates, it is jokes about overbearing Asian parents—and those abounded at the panel “The Road Less Traveled: Asian Americans in Atypical Careers.”  Georgia Lee ’98, director of the film Red Doors, said her parents told her, “You can do anything you want as long as you are a biochemist, doctor, or lawyer.” Such comments allude not only to the stereotypes foisted on Asian Americans by others, but also to expectations within the Asian-American community.

In bringing together Asian-American students, faculty members, administrators, and alumni of all ages, the summit constituted a first. But an offhand remark from summit organizer Jeff Yang—noting the names of two of the summit venues, the Fong and Tsai auditoriums—provided further evidence of the progress Asian Americans have already made at Harvard. As former U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, M.B.A. ’79, summed up at the opening reception: “We are a community on the move.”

Sarah Zhang ’11 is a Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellow at Harvard Magazine.

Read more articles by: Sarah Zhang

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