Asian American Studies Department celebrates 50th anniversary with gala

A colorful mural with a brown buffalo, and depictions of the faces of Asian American historical figures. Images of the 1968 Third World Liberation Front strikers are also present.

This mural was unveiled on SF State’s campus in 2003, and honors Asian American historical figures and the 1968 Third World Liberation Front strikers that paved the way for the first and only College of Ethnic Studies in the U.S.  

Pulitzer Prize-winning alumnus Jose Antonio Vargas tapped as keynote speaker

As a young political reporter for The Washington Post during the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Jose Antonio Vargas found he had leg up on his colleagues thanks to courses he took in San Francisco State University’s College of Ethnic Studies. While some of his fellow reporters were dismissive of one of the candidates, Vargas knew not to underestimate the junior senator with a background in community organizing.

“They were questioning whether Barack Obama was electable. They didn’t know much about Black political history,” said Vargas, who graduated from San Francisco State in 2004 with bachelor’s degrees in political science and what was then called black studies (now renamed Africana studies). “Having that background was kind of a fundamental in my own reporting experience. I think ethnic studies unlocks so much of what we don’t know and what we are not taught. In this country American history for so long has been White history.”

Carla Pennington

SF State 2004 alum Jose Antonio Vargas

On April 20, Vargas will return to SF State to celebrate his ethnic studies roots as the keynote speaker for the Asian American Studies Department’s 50th Anniversary Gala. Vargas, who won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism for his coverage on the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, is a Filipino immigrant and an outspoken immigrant rights activist. He hopes to honor the legacy of those who came before him while also looking toward the future. 

“I think Asian Americans play a really pivotal role, and for far too long the Asian experience has been erased, marginalized and minimized,” said Vargas, who also directed the Emmy-nominated documentary “White People” about white privilege. “So how do we claim our space without erasing others? What does that look like?”

Founded in 1969, SF State’s College of Ethnic Studies was created as a result of a historic campus strike led by the Black Student Union and the Third World Liberation Front. As one of five departments within the college, Asian American Studies has evolved to become the largest program of its kind in the country. Asian American Studies Professor and Department Chair Russell Jeung says social justice and activism aren’t just part of its history: They’re at the forefront of its mission today.

“Effecting positive change in our communities is our top priority, and transforming students is part of that larger agenda,” he said.

And it’s not just SF State students that can be transformed. On March 21, the anniversary of the end of the strike in 1969, the Asian American Studies Department hosted a summit dedicated to creating an ethnic studies curriculum for high schools if California State Assembly Bill 331 passes. (The bill would make it a requirement for high school students to take an ethnic studies class in order to graduate.) Asian American Studies Assistant Professor Eric Mar said the resulting sample curriculum was provided to state officials after the summit.

“As teachers here, we have held a number of campus and community events that led up to the gala,” said Mar. “It allows us to bring the spirit of social justice activism into the classroom as educators more as we reflect on our department's history with our students.”

Graduate student Philip Nguyen is a first-generation Vietnamese American, and says the department has helped him understand his own family’s history. He looks forward to continuing the legacy of the department as an educator after graduating.

“I definitely feel a sense of pride. People want to come to be a part of what we’re doing here,” said Nguyen, who will be attending the gala. “Being at SF State, with all of its history, I feel like we’re the ones to bear the torch moving into this next generation, to continue the work and run with it.”

The gala — Moving Mountains: 50 Years of Asian American Studies at SF State — is being co-hosted by SF State’s College of Extended Learning, Asian American & Pacific Islander Student Services, Dream Resource Center and Black Unity Center. Proceeds from the evening will fund internship stipends and career training for low-income and first-generation Asian American studies majors.

For more information, visit the gala’s official event page.