University’s Asian and Pacific Islander community celebrated at inaugural event

Asian and Pacific American students, faculty and staff find reasons to celebrate at URI

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 10, 2023 – Susan Li Liang, president of the Chinese Student Association, spoke candidly last week about what it’s like to be an Asian student at the University of Rhode Island.

“As an Asian student here, I enjoy meeting and learning about the cultures of students from diverse backgrounds,” she says, but says she sometimes feels disconnected from her own culture. She founded URI’s Chinese Student Association to bring together Chinese students and other students interested in Chinese culture. “Our interaction with other Asian students, faculty members, and community members will help reduce stigmas, stereotypes, and racism against Asian individuals and advocate for an inclusive community on campus,” she says.

Liang and other students talked about their experiences at URI at a midweek gathering in URI’s Multicultural Student Services Center. The celebratory mood of the event, the first of its kind, was an indicator of strong interest in such gatherings and increased connection. Many in the room don’t want to wait for next year’s Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month to enjoy this kind of celebration and community fellowship.

Acknowledging the hurtful and at times dangerous racism happening in the United States, the program was a celebration of the diverse communities at URI, and also serves as a catalyst for future events.

Asian pioneers in R.I.

Rhode Island Senators Victoria Gu and Linda Ujifusa delivered the keynote speeches for the program, as Rhode Island’s first elected legislators of Asian descent.

Rhode Island Senators Victoria Gu of Charlestown and Linda Ujifusa of Portsmouth opened the program; they are Rhode Island’s first elected legislators of Asian descent in the State House.

Gu said everyone in the room, despite differing nationalities and languages, shared a bond arising from their paths to America. Like many of the students attending, Gu said she learned more about her Asian heritage when she went to college. “We have come here from many different backgrounds, for many different reasons,” she said; some for education, others as refugees. “Today’s event is a celebration of the bravery of our parents and ancestors, those who came here recently or in the 1800s to build the railroads, leaving their homelands. We share stories of sacrifice and dedication. Our story is part of the fabric of America, of working to make a better life for yourself. That is the American story.”

Ujifusa delivered a call for action, encouraging students in the room to consider joining herself and Gu in running for office. “I hope to see more faces that look different, like ours, and encourage you to run for office someday. We need to keep educating people and demonstrating the benefits of diversity.”

A third-generation Japanese-American, Ujifusa is familiar with the history of anti-Asian racism and falsehoods in the U.S. against the Asian community. “We are your neighbors, colleagues, children’s classmates,” she said, highlighting Rhode Island’s progress in enacting state law in September, making Asian-American education part of the curriculum in Rhode Island, the fourth state in the country to do so.

Attendees acknowledged that it’s hard to fit the breadth of communities, languages and separate cultures that make up the Asian identity into one three-hour program — but the event was a start.

URI engineering faculty Professor Qing (Ken) Yang, the first Chinese professor at URI, sponsored the new scholarship award.

The gathering also celebrated the first recipients of a scholarship award provided through the sponsorship of longtime engineering faculty member Professor Qing (Ken) Yang, the first person from the Chinese mainland to become a professor at URI.

Ping Xu, associate professor of political science, met Yang soon after her arrival at URI. “Ken has made URI a very special place for all of us. Not only is he a role model for other faculty, he’s mentored hundreds of students and as an engineering professor, attracted millions of dollars in grant funds.”

Julia Al-Amir, one of this year’s award winners, is graduating this spring, and says, “There is a home here for everyone on campus. You can create it and reach out to resources on hand.” Al-Amir is joining URI’s graduate College Student Personnel program after graduation and will be working in the office of Student Engagement, so she’ll be a ready resource to help other students connect and share their culture at URI.

Award recipient Mariyam Abbas (of India) just completed her first year at URI. “Given the current climate, it is more important than ever for people of different cultural backgrounds to work together,” she says. “Being selected as a winner is an honor, and it means a lot to me because it recognizes the importance of student work in promoting diversity and inclusion. It motivates me to continue to advocate for the Asian and Pacific Islander American community at URI and beyond.”

“This event was important,” Xu adds. “During the pandemic, many members of the Asian community, especially the Chinese community, felt pressure and anxiety from anti-Asian discrimination due to COVID and a worsening U.S.-China relationship. It was a very depressing time.”

Some members of their group teared up when the University held a meeting to hear from Asian employees during the pandemic. She says some even left URI and the country because they experienced anti-Asian discrimination and felt threatened, after multiple instances of having racial slurs yelled at them in public. “The pain was real. Almost everybody in our community felt deeply depressed and hurt,” Xu said.

“Even though in recent years we have seen progress in racial equity and diversity overall, Asians are still often ignored and further marginalized in our society. An event like this provides a great opportunity for the Asian community to gain visibility in our URI community. We are thrilled that people are willing to learn about our culture and get to know us better. We would love to better integrate into the larger community and make URI a better place for everybody.”

The standing-room only gathering drew many community members from URI’s Asian communities, allies and supporters. 

URI Dining Services co-sponsored the event, which served a delicious Pan-Asian menu of Vietnamese spring rolls, Indian pakora, Pakistani samosas, Chinese dumplings, Japanese green tea, and Taiwanese taro milk tea.