AUSTIN — Police used plastic handcuffs when they arrested Shomial Ahmad and nine other UT students in May 1999 after a five-hour sit-in supporting the creation of an Asian American studies program.
“It was a typical student organization tactic,” Ahmad said. “We were told you could elect to get arrested, so some people left. It was sort of a decision to get arrested.”
Student activists first asked UT officials for an Asian American studies program in 1995. After going back and forth with the University for years, the struggle came to a head when police arrested the 10 student protestors and charged them with criminal trespassing, according to previous reporting by The Daily Texan.
The group became known on campus as the “UT 10,” catalyzing a campus debate that led UT to establish the Center for Asian American Studies and create an Asian American studies major by fall 1999.
Twenty-one years later, five students are majoring in Asian American studies at UT.
“In a university this big, it’s so weird to walk into an office and see only a handful of students are studying this very particular thing,” said Sarah Phillips, an Asian American studies and government senior.
Without Asian American studies, the University seemed to question the value of Asian Americans themselves, said Eric Tang, current director of the Center for Asian American Studies.
“Students who demand ethnic studies courses and continue to engage in activism or advocacy for these programs are asserting that they are concerned with what the absence of certain peoples’ histories and cultures means,” Tang said.
The 1999 protest elicited mixed reactions from the campus community. One Daily Texan columnist argued a single elective could summarize Asian American studies, with one half about Chinese railroad workers and the other about Japanese internment camps.
“Undergraduate university work is not about learning nifty little facts about how your immigrant grandpa contributed to America’s greatness,” the columnist wrote in July 1999.
In response, a guest columnist argued Asian Americans need an ethnic studies major to realize their community’s contributions to America.
“To my utter dismay, another individual has once again attempted to erase my identity out of the heritage of this great country of ours,” that columnist wrote. “There is a definite lack of pride in Asian Americans in their identity.”
Today, Phillips said the array of cultural student organizations on campus illustrates Asian American students’ pride in their identities. Phillips said many students relate more to their national or cultural identities rather than a singular Asian American identity, but she identifies as both Indian American and Asian American.
“The words Asian American are a made-up concept,” Phillips said. “We’re talking about a vast group of people that come from hundreds of countries and speak hundreds of languages. In the context of the (United States), they’re grouped into one category.”
In 1999, about 17% of students on campus were Asian American, though they made up 4% of the U.S. population, according to U.S. Census data. Not all of the UT 10 were Asian American students, but Ahmad said they were frustrated with faculty members for dragging their feet and not seeking student input when selecting a dean for the new program.
“It was the lack of the democratic process,” Ahmad said. “In college, you’re trying to sort out your identity … Ethnic studies gives you an idea of how people are racialized in this country.”
The tensions were compounded when Judith Langlois, then interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts, postponed creating the program until officials selected its permanent director. At the time, the University was offering courses in European studies, Italian civilization, Jewish studies, East European studies, Mexican American studies and Black studies.
“Failed first attempts are not uncommon in university searches for persons of this stature and do not reflect bad faith,” Langlois wrote in a June 1999 guest column in the Texan.
By fall 1999, UT founded the Center for Asian American studies.
The Asian American identity
Tang said the center has faced challenges since then, such as losing half its full-time staff within the past decade. Phillips said she feels the center does not receive enough support in general, leading to less students knowing about its existence.
“(Asian Americans) are not underrepresented on campus, but we are underrepresented in terms of our histories and communities being documented at this institution,” Phillips said.
This year, about 23% of the undergraduate population is Asian American, according to University data. Tang said not all Asian American studies majors are Asian American, and the proportion of students to majors does not measure the center’s success.
“The important indicator for us is our classes are consistently at capacity,” Tang said. “It’s very rare to find one of our courses with a whole bunch of seats left.”
The center received a larger space when it relocated from Burdine Hall to Bellmont Hall in 2019, which Tang said showed University support.
“The University invested tens of thousands of dollars into renovating the beautiful office in Bellmont and offered it to Asian American studies first,” Tang said. “That, to me, is a pretty clear sign that they support (the center) and the future of the field at UT.”
Tony Vo, assistant director of the Center for Asian American Studies, said he graduated as one of the first Asian American studies majors in 2005. He said the center helped him articulate his struggles growing up as a Vietnamese American in Richardson, Texas.
“Our proximity to whiteness as Asian Americans makes it feel like, ‘We don’t need to know this stuff. What’s the relevancy anymore?’” Vo said. “But when you look at history, you realize just 70 years ago, (the U.S.) was interning Asian bodies (in camps).”
Phillips said she decided to major in Asian American studies to understand her community’s place in the racial framework of the U.S., but she recognizes why other Asian American students do not.
“There’s never going to be a time where all 20% of Asian American students on this campus will be completely united or majoring in Asian American studies,” Phillips said. “But we need to start thinking about organizing and political justice as part of our cultural preservation. Thinking of the students who were arrested 20 years ago — I’m trying to preserve that.”