Students lead a campaign to establish an Asian American Center at Carolina.
More than a quarter-century ago, Carolina students first advocated for an on-campus Asian American Center.
At that time, in 1994, roughly 3% of the student body at UNC-Chapel Hill identified as Asian or Asian American. Since then, the Asian American student population at Carolina has grown to 17% — making Asian Americans the largest ethnic minority on campus.
“And the only affinity group that doesn’t have a center at Carolina,” noted Sean Nguyen ’21, a Morehead-Cain Scholar from Tampa, Florida. “Asian American students, staff and faculty would love a centralized place, representative and inclusive for all Asian American Tar Heels.”
Sean Nguyen ’21. the Asian American Center’s first campaign director
Now, thanks to the tenacity of a dedicated group of students and the ongoing support of Asian American alumni, those decades-old dreams of establishing an Asian American Center on campus are finally coming to fruition.
“It’s fundamentally about making sure Asian Americans are included in the American fabric. For so long, we haven’t felt included in the American story or even, sometimes, in the Carolina story. We are seeking to change that,” added Nguyen, the Asian American Center’s first campaign director.
Preeyanka Rao ’21, co-director of development for the Asian American Center, agreed. “We’ve seen that almost 35% of Asian Americans at Carolina report that they lack a sense of belonging, and 55% feel like they don’t have a faculty or staff member they can talk to. Having that kind of mentorship, programming and resources —personally and academically — is crucial.”
Preeyanka Rao ’21, co-director of development for the Asian American Center
The Asian American Center has, foremost, an educational and community charge, to serve as a dynamic hub for all to engage with Asian American scholarship, culture and advocacy. The center will enhance campus and community culture through speakers and events; offer a variety of professional development opportunities, scholarships and funding for student-driven initiatives; open doors for corporate partnerships; and address the growing need for all North Carolinians to better understand Asian American histories, cultures and experiences.
Most importantly, the center will help build the next generation of leaders while supporting and embracing an important but often overlooked minority student population.
The Asian American Center Campaign team aims to raise $1.2 million by the end of 2020 to start addressing diversity and inclusion at a particularly distressing time when Asian American communities nationwide are experiencing an upsurge in physical attacks, discrimination and hate speech during the global COVID-19 pandemic. The amount needed to fully endow the center is $5 million.
Members of the Asian American Center Campaign team. From left: Sean Nguyen ’21, Aditi Adhikari ’20, Selina Shi ’23 and Preeyanka Rao ’21
The student-led team has raised more than half of the $1.2 million goal by engaging Carolina’s Asian American alumni. Several alumni, including Eugene Lao ’91, David Liu ’95 and Barb Lee ’88, have made significant contributions to the center while offering their support, advocacy and leadership.
Lao, who made the first gift to the Asian American Center Campaign, cofounded the Asian Students Association — now known as the Asian American Students Association — at Carolina more than 30 years ago.
Growing up in Greenville, North Carolina, Lao said there was not a large Asian community. At Carolina, he met other Asian American students, and they established a formal student organization on campus. After earning his law degree at Duke University, Lao spent the first 16 years of his career working in Asia before settling in San Francisco. When he came back to the U.S., he re-engaged with the Asian American Students Association at UNC-Chapel Hill. He was pleased to discover a thriving organization that he still engages with today.
In 2019, Lao reached out to June Yom ’20, then president of the Asian American Students Association. He was interested in creating an endowment for the organization, but Yom and her peers had another idea.
“She came back and said that a better way to help would be to create a center,” Lao recalled. “She thought bigger. She did the hard thing, of thinking how this could help more people than just her organization.”
Eugene Lao ’91, supporter of the Asian American Center
That initial group of Yom and her peers grew into the Asian American Center Campaign team, an organized force of passionate students, faculty, alumni, staff and administrators all working toward the same goal: to create an Asian American Center at Carolina. In January 2020, with Nguyen now at the helm as campaign director, the group obtained authorization from the UNC Board of Trustees to officially establish the Asian American Center at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“They have moved incredibly purposefully and quickly,” said Lao. “Having students reach out and share their experiences is incredibly inspiring and positions the center as a future model for more alumni-driven support.”
As the campaign team worked to engage more Asian American alumni, Nguyen happened across the name David Liu while researching a final paper on the history of Asian Americans at UNC-Chapel Hill for a history class. In the Wilson Library archives, he discovered that Liu had proposed the idea for an Asian American Center at Carolina back in 1994.
“I found it so inspiring, looking through the archives and discovering that Liu’s arguments to develop a center were the same as the arguments we are making now, more than 20 years later,” Nguyen recalled.
During his tenure at Carolina, Liu and his peers started a series of initiatives aimed at expanding the Asian Students Association’s presence on campus. They expanded the scale of the Journey into Asia annual event and launched the East Wind Asian American magazine. They founded Asian American Heritage Week at Carolina, which George Takei participated in one year, and they rented space on the second story of the Student Union, where among other things they created a temporary exhibit on Asian American history — a predecessor of the center students are working to establish at Carolina today.
David Liu ’95, supporter of the Asian American Center, now and then
“The exhibit showed us how special it could be to have a permanent space where we could showcase artifacts and host events and exhibitions,” said Liu. “The symbolism of being represented on campus — announcing that we were here, too — was hugely important to us.”
The campaign team also reached out to alumna Barb Lee, founder and president of both Point Made Films, a documentary film company focused on American identity, and Point Made Learning, a consulting company regarding issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. Lee hosted the first official fundraising event for the new center in November 2019.
“When Sean called me and told me that the Asian American students were the last and only affinity group not to have a center — I just found that untenable,” Lee said. “The Asian American Center will be a place for students to congregate, learn from each other, fuel their sense of activism, their sense of equity and their responsibility as students of the University, citizens of the community, the U.S. and the world. This center is a place where students will learn how to lead, find their place and create change.”
And the students involved in creating the center are already doing just that — leading, finding their place and creating change. Rao, co-director of development for the campaign team, elaborated on why it’s so important that this initiative is being led by students.
“At the end of the day, students know what students need, and we have deeper ties with the undergraduate population, which allows us to mobilize in ways others can’t. Our mission speaks to what the community wants and needs at this time. I can’t wait to see the impact the Asian American Center will have on future generations of Tar Heels.”
Learn more about the UNC Asian American Center at aac.unc.eduOpens in new window.