A Milestone for Asian-American Alumni

Organized by the Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance (HAAAA), the three-day Asian American Alumni Summit on October 15-17 drew more than 400 people from six decades and all of Harvard’s schools (http://summit.haaaa.net). “We are immeasurably diverse as a group, yet we share many of the same goals,” said Jeannie Park ’83, who co-chaired the event with Jeff Yang ’89. 

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. During the opening plenary session, “Where We Stand: The Changing Asian-American Experience at Harvard,” William F. Lee ’72, managing partner of Wil-merHale 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. 

Yet 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. Not quite 20 years later, HAAAA co-chair Jeff Yang could point out that the group’s summit venues on campus included both the Fong and Tsai auditoriums. 

The summit’s 50 speakers and presenters ranged from Secretary of the Cabinet Chris Lu, J.D. ’91, to novelist Gish Jen ’77 and professional poker player Bernard Lee ’92, A.L.M. ’94. There were panel discussions on topics such as social entrepreneurship and public service, film screenings, and an “elevator-pitch” competition

Affirmative action and race-blind admissions were recurrent themes. Several speakers expressed concern that enrollment of Asian-American students at the College, currently 17 percent, has remained flat for the past 30 years despite that group’s growing representation in the applicant pool. 

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, was among the speakers, as was Athena Lao ’12, who helped with that effort and is co-president of the Asian American Association (AAA) student group. The AAA can help bring the more ethnically specific Asian cultural groups at Harvard together, Lao says, and encourage students who identify with the Asian-American community “to say it proudly.” 

Reaching across divides within that community was also a theme in the keynote address by Chris Lu, who serves as an assistant to his law-school classmate Barack 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.

Lu asked the audience to raise their hands if their parents were immigrants, and nearly everyone did. “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 included a five-day bus ride to Tennessee during which the traveler consumed nothing but hamburgers and milk, the only items he could name in English. Many other speakers also 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 Asian-American alumni gatherings, it is jokes about overbearing parents. During 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.” 

Read more articles by: Sarah Zhang

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