The Past, Present, and Future of Asian American Studies at UC Davis

Stimulating discussion, impassioned speakers, artistic performance, food, and music – all of these were vitally present at the 45th Anniversary of Asian American Studies event on March 7th. Taking place at the sunny Putah Creek Lodge in UC Davis’s arboretum, the anniversary celebrations lasted much of the day, from opening remarks to toasts and musical performances.

The audience was filled with alumni from the program, particularly from the early years of Asian American Studies (ASA). The event seemed significant, not only for the future of ASA, but as an opportunity for old friends and colleagues to reconnect and commemorate the department that was so formative for their college years.

Richard Kim, associate professor and chair of Asian American Studies, highlighted the department’s past by reminding the audience that the historical goal of ASA has been to “democratize higher education.”

Kieu-Linh Caroline Valverde and Robyn Rodriguez, both associate professors in the ASA department, emphasized the department’s future by looking forward to the 50-year anniversary that will take place only five years from now. The need to continue to innovate in the fields of research and community activism resonated in Valverde and Rodriguez’s remarks. “Our faculty approach Asian American Studies from a global and transnational perspective; that makes us at the cutting edge of our field,” Rodriguez said, a challenge that is particularly important at UC Davis in its role as a public university.

A focus of the day’s events was commemorating the life and work of Professor George Kagiwada, the ASA’s first Director and beloved member of the ASA community at UC Davis. Kagiwada, who passed away in 2000, clearly made a huge impact on his classes, as could be seen clearly in the conversation by former students who made up one of the day’s panels. Tommy Woon, Peggy Saika, Bill Tamayo, and Art Chen spoke about the influence Kagiwada had on their lives and careers, both from in and outside of the classroom.

A particular shared memory for this generation of ASA students is the fight to have Kagiwada granted tenure. In a research-oriented institution like UC Davis, Kagiwada’s relative lack of research and publications seemed to matter to the university more than all of his teaching and all of his community activism. Kagiwada (and his students on his behalf) argued that tenure should be granted based on the creation of a department that was “activist, relational, and social-change oriented,” as Woon said.

When the university finally granted Kagiwada tenure in 1977, it marked a historic change for higher education as well as signifying the vital role the ASA department played both inside and outside of the university.

The final respondent in the panel was Justin Phan, a fifth-year undergraduate who, although Kagiwada passed away long before Justin could meet him, has been “able to engage with his vision” through the archive of Kagiwada’s materials. As an inheritor of Kagiwada’s legacy and the department he envisioned, Phan spoke powerfully about the potential of ASA for both “a tool for social control” and a “tool for social change.” The inspiring stories from across the day-long conference show how the ASA department at UC Davis has always championed the latter and opened doors for its students.

– Katja Jylkka, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in English