Educators and Students Making a Difference:Raising awareness, building connections,and sharing stories

What locales come to mind when you think about Asian Americans? There’s more to our community’s histories than the coasts and the Pacific Islands. Although the stories of Minnesota are often dominated by European settlers and immigrants, a seldom known yet equally important chapter comes from Asian Americans. Teaching at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, Prof. Ka Wong is interested in Asian American communities in the Midwest. His collaborative research with undergraduate students has explored Asian Minnesotan narratives, from Japanese Americans during WWII to Hmong American women in the Midwest to Asian American college students in Minnesota. Sharing these stories in the classroom has also engendered the interdisciplinary course Asia in America, of which “Academic Civic Engagement” (ACE) is an integral part. Alyssa Melby, the ACE Program Director, joined forces with him and began to consider ways for students to take further action, uplifting the Asian American stories and bringing awareness to the general public, particularly in the face of rising anti-Asian prejudice due to the pandemic. Prof. Wong, Alyssa and APAC started a conversation to learn more about one another’s work and how they could support each other’s goals. This resulted in small groups of students in the Spring 2021 course pitching ideas for new Learning Lab modules based on the students’ interests and their perceived gaps of content within the series. Informed by their own stories, students proposed and presented project topics on particular issues regarding Asian and Asian American experiences, which they deemed not only compelling but also as a part of an educational effort to combat stereotypes, racism, and other important socio-cultural dilemmas. With the support of the college, students worked with APAC in the summer to make their proposals a reality.

Mind over Matter: AAPI Mental Health'' and “Grandparents: A Look into the Elderly Chinese American Experience” led by Andy Nelson, Jason Tan, and Amber Waller became the two final chosen projects, which are available on Learning Lab. They include access to primary sources, project worksheets, archival and online materials, discussion questions and reflections, along with annotated bibliographies on the respective subjects.

One of the big takeaways is that I know so very little about being Chinese, despite that it is the only life I've ever known,” Jason said. “I feel that mental health in the Asian American community, as well as the elderly, are topics that have a flourishing amount of nuance to them, but are also an everyday lived experience that we just don't get to hear often enough.” Amber agrees. “We focus on the normal lives of Asian American elders because discussions about their community are always about the problems,” she notes, yet “they are Americans first” whose “lives are as much a part of American society as everyone else.” Likewise, mental health is a “taboo” subject among many Asian American communities, Andy maintains; we need to unpack the stigma and open up for dialogue. “An inclusive, engaged community by definition must involve developing relationships with people and partners outside of the academy and identifying ways to collaborate,” Alyssa notes. “At a predominantly White institution, it calls us to build intentional connections with communities of color.”

Indeed, building connections is vital for students’ growth — not only academically for producing knowledge but also personally with different people and communities. Prof. Wong concludes that the students have become more attentive, introspective, and engaged as listeners, thinkers, and global citizens. Hopefully, this is only the beginning.


St. Olaf College students, from left to right, Amber Waller, Andy Nelson, and Jason Tan 


— Written by Ka Wong, Alyssa Melby, Andy Nelson, Jason Tan, Amber Waller