New global Asian studies major ‘a dream since 1991’

attendees at the end of the GLAS program
From left to right: Cyril Dela Rosa (moderator), John Park, Brandon Mita, Bettina Johnson, Naomi Leilani Salcedo, Henna Vohra, Shukri Ideis, Gianna Mae Tan and Samuel Phara participate in an alumni panel. (Photo: Paul Goyette)

Several dozen students, faculty members and alumni gathered recently at the University of Illinois Chicago to celebrate the inception of a new major and Bachelor of Arts degree in global Asian studies. 

The GLAS major is being offered in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and is the first of its kind in the Midwest. The program engages in interdisciplinary study of Asia and transoceanic and transnational Asian diasporas.  

Anna Guevarra, founding director of GLAS, told the audience members gathered at Student Center East that the major had been an idea that took more than 30 years to become a reality. She said it was an initiative led by students who used petitions, news stories, news releases and memoranda of understanding to get the university to offer more courses related to Asian American issues as well as greater representation.

“It was fought collectively and collaboratively with faculty, students and staff working together; this has been a dream since 1991,” said Guevarra, referencing a flyer for a “speak out” that students organized in 2006.

Guevarra, associate professor of global Asian studies, remarked that this dream also called for supporters to think beyond identity politics, with the students themselves explaining that “Asian Americans aren’t the only students underserved when Asian American studies does not exist.”

Anna Guevarra, GLAS
Anna Guevarra. (Photo: Hunter Atha)

Amalia Pallares, vice chancellor for diversity, equity and engagement, said that as the head diversity officer in the university and as professor in the department of Latin American and Latino studies, she could not be happier to welcome the new major, which she called, “an incredible achievement.”

“It was really a distant dream for students and faculty in the 90s, and it has taken three decades to come to fruition,” Pallares said.

She said that as a longtime member of the UIC faculty, one of her earliest memories on campus was seeing Asian students marching to demand Asian American resources and programming that “were pretty much nonexistent.”

The movement led to the creation of the Asian American Resource and Cultural Center and continued through the years, leading to the hiring of more Asian American faculty, the establishment of an academic unit and then eventually the offering of global Asian studies as a minor and now as a major, Pallares said.

“I can say that none of these things were easy, there were many challenges, many instances where those who were advocating for this were told there were no resources, no possibilities, no options,” Pallares said. “There were those who believed in the positive — and when they were told there were no resources found them elsewhere.”

Lisa Freeman, interim dean for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said the global Asian studies program has been a “vibrant” and “dynamic” part of the college officially since 2016, but it is the culmination of decades of activism on the part of the campus and community partners. She credited Guevarra for her tireless efforts.

Freeman said the major brings together two “disparate but related disciplines,” Asian studies and Asian American studies. She said the program is interdisciplinary and includes courses and disciplines from art history to history and from political science to anthropology and sociology.

“The global Asian studies major is the first of its kind in the Midwest and only one of a handful of such programs nationwide,” Freeman said. “Professor Guevarra has worked incredibly hard to bring this program to life. She has not only built an academic program, she has built a community.”

attendees at the end of the GLAS program
Photo of the attendees at the end of the GLAS program. (Photo: Paul Goyette)

As part of the celebration, alumni were invited back on campus to discuss their time as UIC students and to celebrate the culmination of their efforts for greater representation.

One of those alumni was Naomi Leilani Salcedo, who in 2016 graduated from UIC with a Bachelor of Sociology degree and a minor in Asian American studies. Salcedo said when they and their classmates arrived at UIC in 2012, they were first exposed to ethnic studies.

“When I first came to campus, immediately I found AARCC (Asian American Resource and Cultural Center), and it felt like home, it really felt like a community,” Salcedo said.

Salcedo and their friends then took Asian American studies courses, minored in what was then called the Asian American studies program, and joined the program’s student advisory board. Upon graduating in 2016, Salcedo co-produced a short video tribute to the program’s transition to global Asian studies.

Six years later, upon learning that GLAS was now a major, they said, “I felt a wave of emotion and in awe of collective power. My time at UIC ASAM was a transformative experience — one that lives out through my current work empowering and serving immigrants and refugees in Chicagoland.”

Brandon Mita, who graduated from UIC in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, served as the chairperson of the Asian American Coalition Committee. Mita recalled working with other Asian students and faculty to first get the cultural center, then Asian American Awareness Month, and later Asian American studies. Mita recalled trying to draw interest to their rally, dubbed “the speak out,” and fighting to get flyers up.

“I’m just so thankful that we have (gotten to this point),” Mita said.

More information about the global Asian studies program.

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