How You Can Better Support Your Asian Students, According to a Chief Diversity Officer

In a recent op-ed for Insight Into Diversity, the three co-authors challenged American colleges and universities to do better in supporting Asian students and staff. They wrote:

“If higher education institutions are truly interested in the concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), it is time for senior staff and DEI practitioners at all levels to shine a light on ourselves when it comes to our level of concern for anti-racism efforts in support of our Asian students, colleagues, and community members.”

The editorial includes excellent calls-to-action for professionals at all levels of higher education. But I wanted to learn more — particularly from the unique perspective of student affairs.

Out of all the folks employed at college campuses, SA pros often have the greatest level of interaction with students, day in and day out. That means that at many schools, the work needs to start with us — in our residence halls, through our orientation programs, and in our daily engagement efforts.

We know that there’s a lot of work to be done. But how? How can we better support our Asian students and colleagues, both American and international — in response to recent anti-Asian hate crimes and all year round?

Well, I reached out to Christa Grant, a student affairs professional and one of the editorial’s co-authors. Christa is the Assistant Dean for Intercultural Affairs/Chief Diversity Officer for Student Affairs at Union College. She’s also a proud first-generation Asian-American college student, having been born and raised in Hong Kong. She has more than a decade’s experience as a DEI scholar-practitioner and is currently working on her EdD at Northeastern University.

Christa Grant - she/her/hers Union College

Christa and I chatted about how student affairs professionals everywhere — from deans to coordinators, career advisors to residence directors — can better combat anti-Asian hate and make their campuses more welcoming to every Asian and Asian-American student. She also addressed the dangers of the model minority myth, shared her opinion on “I stand with Asians” Instagram posts, and discussed the complex intersectionalities of Asian identity.

Check out her perspectives and advice in our interview below.

How would you recommend that student affairs professionals reach out to their Asian and Pacific Islander students right now? How can they show their support and care for students, beyond just re-sharing an official statement put out by the institution?

So there’s a couple of things that I want to address before diving into our conversation today. I have seen different perspectives on whether we should include Pacific Islanders in the conversations regarding recent rising hate crimes against Asian communities.

One perspective is that the hate crimes in America against Asians right now are strictly against Asian and Asian Americans. There are two popular hashtags; one is #StopAsianHate, and one is #StopAAPIHate. And I’ve heard from people who identify as Pacific Islander saying “please do not include me in this” and “this is not the time to be inclusive.”

Reason being that while we want to be inclusive, we also need to understand that the hate crimes happening now are specifically towards Asian and Asian American people. So I think there needs to be a distinction in terms of who we reach out to. Our East Asian students and colleagues are being impacted the most, so it is important to check in with them. You might have a Pacific Islander student that says “I’m not being affected. Why are you checking in on me?” And that’s just one example of how diverse the AAPI population is.

With that being said, consider: what is the purpose of a statement? A statement without action and resources is just a speech. And anybody can make a speech. A lot of students can actually tell — even employees can tell — when a statement is performative versus when a statement is actually sincere and that the leaders are looking to create change. So I would encourage leadership, especially senior leadership, to think about before we put a statement out, what are we trying to achieve? What is our goal? Because, sometimes, you might do more harm than good.

But if you do have a statement with action steps planned out, I recommend that we take actions in collaboration, whether it is with the DEI office, student organizations, or with Asian/ethnic studies. A collaborative approach will be best to tackle or address anti-Asian racism.

Another recommendation that I have is to check in on students within your student organizations and clubs, student staff, student leaders, residents, and commuters. If you’re at a large, research university, the membership of clubs might be divided not just by racial identity, but also by ethnicity. So reach out to those students and check in on them as well. It can be simply an email or a text.

At a smaller institution, you can do the same thing with individual students. Let them know “I’m here. I know what is going on right now. I don’t know exactly what you are going through, but I want you to know that I’m here to support you. Our offices are here to support you in any way that we can.”

I think a lot of people are still processing. So even saying something as simple as “Are you doing okay? Do you need anything?” can go a long way.

Offer whatever you can — whether it’s programming or organizing a vigil. It is also important to remember that while you may not be able to reach out to all students of Asian descent, you should still do what you can.

Similarly, how should non-Asian student affairs professionals reach out to their Asian colleagues? What should they say, or what sort of support should they offer?

It’s very similar. Check in and say “How are you doing? Is there anything I can do to help support you?”

You can simply write an email or make a phone call to say “I know what is going on. I’m here. I’m here to listen if you need me.” Offering a listening ear is a good start. If there is a vigil or programs addressing Anti-Asian racism, show up. There is nothing more important than showing up for your Asian students and colleagues at this time.

How might a student affairs professionals tackle anti-Asian hate while avoiding empty offers of support that they may not actually have the time nor resources to provide?

Well, first off, we need to remember the intersectionalities we all have. Our racial identity is just part of who we are; it is not our sole identity. One of the things that I would say to tackle anti-Asian hate is going beyond posting on social media, beyond a hashtag.

It really needs to start with self-awareness and education. I think that, through the last year with everything that has been happening with Asian hate crimes in relation to COVID, there’s been a lot of ignorance. And the lack of understanding of the Asian experience in our country, the model minority myth, has created a huge misunderstanding of the real Asian experience.

And we also need to understand the diverse diaspora of Asians in our country. We have to be mindful that there are not only Asians, but also within that circle, we have Asian-Americans, transracial Asian-Americans, and Asian students who are international students and have a huge representation on many of our campuses. We cannot lump them together. The experiences are all different.

So the first step really is to confront your own personal biases about the Asian population. You have to do your own research. You have to read, listen to podcasts, and not put this on your Asian students and colleagues, especially during this time when everybody is still processing and is traumatized by recent events.

One of the ways that we can create a more inclusive environment is to work with our Asian colleagues and Asian student groups, including our international student groups and find a way to collaborate. Is there a time when we can host a dialogue around AAPI hate? Could we have professors who are experts in Asian studies or Asian American history offer lectures or a speaker series to really look into the history and experiences of Asians in this country? How are we going to create spaces for people to talk, to learn, to engage in dialogues, and to check in with each other?

And you should provide a platform for Asian students and colleagues to share their lived experiences, versus only having a single story of what we think Asians experience in this country. Films like Crazy Rich Asians and shows like Bling Empire have created a false image and representation of Asian people. This single narrative is very dangerous because it only painted one version of the Asian experiences and led many people to believe that the Asian population is monolithic.

But there’s such huge diversity. You have Southeast Asian, East Asian, you have middle East Asian. We all have different experiences. Some Asians are immigrants. Some have been here in America for many generations. Some are refugees. Some are adoptees, biracial, or multiracial. These shows perpetuate the model minority myth and neglect the diverse experiences that we have as Asians in the US. It puts a lot of pressure on Asian students and our Asian colleagues to live up to unrealistic expectations.

How might your average student affairs professional, one who isn’t a dean or vice president and doesn’t have the power to make major campus-wide decisions, help prevent anti-Asian hate on their campus?

Again, I would go back to education and awareness. We have to understand that anti-Asian hate is just one sector. There are other forms of oppression.

We need to offer bystander intervention training programs for our students, our colleagues, to understand how and when to intervene — when we need to disrupt their behaviors. Because if you look at the recent news, a lot of people when they’re getting attacked, there is no active bystander stepping in.

So one of the ways that we can take on an active role to combat racism and forms of oppression is through bystander intervention training, which is easy to adapt for your campus. There are so many free resources online. And for a lot of campuses, the Title IX intervention program is a requirement. So you could pull existing resources from there too.

In terms of entry-level or mid-level professionals, I think that you can organize lunch meetings and have monthly discussions, talking about DEI-related issues. It doesn’t have to be an organized campus event; it can just be within your own departments or as an in-service within a division. It might not impact your institution immediately, but I think that it’s important for us to be proactive versus being reactive.

So while not many people expected or foresaw the shooting that happened recently, the statistics and data have shown that hate crimes against Asians are on a rise. What are we doing as student affairs professionals? Are we having this discussion in our staff meetings, with our RAs, our student government? Are we reading articles that talk about the issue? Are we doing tabletop exercises to better prepare ourselves as a learning community? Are we connecting with the campus bias response team to ensure that community members are aware of the policies and reporting mechanisms?

Do we, as an institution, know when a hate crime occurs, not just for Asian students but for any other population, how we are going to respond? It’s a good time to revisit our policies and our practices.

And for people who work in residence life or student activities or orientation, can we do training specific to anti-Asian and anti-Black rhetoric through an intersectional lens? Can we do an in-service that addresses these topics? Not just on the professional level but also in educating our student population so they’re more aware.

As student affairs professionals, we know that learning occurs beyond the classroom. We must take the lead to ensure that our students are aware of what is going on in our country, with current events and empower them to take on responsibilities and be change agents, to lead discussion within their clubs and social circles.

What sorts of programs do you think campuses should be providing for their non Asian students? How might student affairs professionals help educate these students on anti-Asian crime or how to support their Asian peers?

I think now is a great time for ongoing professional development and education. There are so many free webinars talking about how to stop anti-Asian hate crimes. So utilize those opportunities. Share the link or recording with students. Partner with student clubs or student government to see if there’s a way for the discussion to be had.

I feel a lot of times, and this is speaking from experience, whenever there’s an attack on a marginalized population, the people who are leading the charge for vigils or for donations or educational programs are those from that marginalized population. It automatically falls on them.

So, for non-API colleagues, one of the ways that you can show up as an active ally is to offer to either support or take on the lead in organizing those events. So that it’s not all on Asians. Organizing these types of events also puts on additional stress for our Asian students and colleagues who are in the process of grieving and worrying about their own safety. Organizing a vigil can be a great way to offer your support.

However, if student groups are taking the lead to organize a vigil or any event, my recommendation is to show up. Share the event flyer, encourage your non-Asian students to attend. Your physical or online presence makes a difference. It shows Asian students and colleagues that you care and are here to support them.

Are there any actions, no matter how well-intentioned they may be, that you would caution readers against doing in response to anti-Asian hatred or in advocating for better Asian inclusion in higher education?

I think we need to be very careful with tokenization. There's a difference between checking in to make sure Asian students are doing OK versus asking Asian students to be the voice. Click To Tweet

For example, a lot of schools have API student associations. But the people in leadership might not be Asian. So we need to understand the fine lines about tokenizing an organization and tokenizing Asian voices to give their feedback on what is going on.

And if Asian students are criticizing the institution for not doing enough, we need to use this as a learning opportunity to reflect and engage in a wider conversation — to think about what we can do better as an institution to support our API student population. So, we shouldn’t say like, “Hey, Asian student association, what are you going to do for this situation right now?”, “What’s your opinion on what is going right now?” “Can you educate us on what is going on?” It’s just not a good idea. It is insensitive, harmful, and may make Asian students feel unseen.

And I also think that we need to avoid performative allyship. Posting a hashtag, posting an Instagram image that says “I’m for Asian people” — but if you’re not educating yourself on what is going on, reading the news, being active in advocating for the Asian student population — that is counterintuitive.

Don’t post for the post. Don’t post for attention. There’s so much deep history with Asians and Asian communities in our country that is rooted in white supremacy and racism. We have to continue to learn and challenge our own biases.

As someone who navigated college as an Asian student yourself, what are some challenges that API students might experience that other people may not be aware of?

Well, the Asian model-minority myth is so harmful. Somehow there’s this perception that Asians are so good and so successful that they don’t face any challenges and that we don’t need to care for them. It basically invalidates our contribution and our experience here in the US. It is saying that anti-Asian racism is non-existent, which we know is not true.

Our cultural upbringing impacts the way many of us interact and behave at school or in the workplace. Like I said earlier, the model minority myth has put on a lot of pressure on us. For many Asian cultures, we have been taught to not talk about our struggles and to hide our feelings and emotions. So mental health is an issue when you are coupling that with the stigma with seeking counseling. Our voices have been silenced and a lot of us are trying really hard to find our voice and share with the world that we do face discrimination and harassment and hate crimes.

I think that we also have to understand that there are Asian students who are domestic students, and then there are international students. And within the Asian student population, we also have a lot of transracial adoptees who look Asian on the outside but do not share similar experiences as their Asian peers from Asian households. And many of them find themselves struggling with their Asian identity. This is from my experience working with students, who are transracial adoptees with white parents, who are feeling lost in the midst of everything that is happening right now.

It is essential to confront the stereotypes we may have about Asians. Stop putting us in boxes. We are not the pictures that others pin us to be. We cannot invite and recruit Asian students to our campuses without providing institutional support and structures to support them. So it is important for student affairs professionals to collaborate, not just with student activities, but also with their international student support services, counseling center, academic advising , etc.

Another thing is that people group us together based on our skin color. But what people don’t realize is that there’s also internalized oppression and prejudices between groups. Colorism is an issue amongst many Asian communities. For our international students, many of them experienced culture shock. Research has shown that they often found themselves not fitting in on campus. It is also likely that they don’t feel connected with other Asian-American students even if they have the same skin color or ethnicity.

Another thing I would add — which is something that I often remind myself of too — we cannot have an oppression Olympics. We cannot compare the Asian experience to Black experiences or to Jewish experiences or Latinx experiences. We all have very unique experiences that impact us and our college experiences.

We have to be mindful of our intersectionalities. When we program, we need to take an intersectional approach. Because not everything is black and white. Student affairs professionals need to be aware of the fact that many Asian students feel that they’re not being seen. Even from my personal experience, because of my skin color, being East Asian, we are sometimes forgotten, we feel invisible. The model minority myth and its associated stereotypes are detrimental to the Asian student experience and impact their sense of belonging on our campuses.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to student affairs professionals about responding to anti-Asian hate and promoting greater API inclusion?

Anti-Asian racism has been around for years. It didn’t just happen in 2020. There’s a lack of emphasis on the Asian-American and Asian experience in higher education. For quite a few institutions, addressing Asian issues has been a challenge and now we are playing catch up.

We need to take a proactive approach in promoting DEI issues; we cannot afford to be reactive. For the purposes of my profession, I will always do programs specifically for different heritage months. However, as student affairs professionals, we must integrate DEI programming into our practices. We need to celebrate our marginalized populations every day, not just for a month. I think we need to be very intentional about what programs we are offering, how we showcase the diversity of our campuses, how we promote inclusive practices, and create an equitable campus where all students are welcome and can succeed.

And celebrations need to go beyond food and performances. I have a res life background and one of my pet peeves is to see food programs as part of diversity programming. A floor dinner featuring ethnic food is not a diversity program. You can order Chinese food, you can order Jamaican food, you can order whatever you’d like on a daily basis. We don’t need to create a themed dinner and call it a diversity program. We are more than just food.

We need to really examine our programming offerings and challenge our students and colleagues to offer opportunities that go beyond food and performances. We must lean into discomfort to have opportunities to discuss heavy or controversial topics. We must offer a brave space for our students and colleagues to engage in dialogues and learn more from each other. We must allow ourselves to be vulnerable, share our experiences, challenge our own blindspots, be willing to listen and enhance our awareness and cultural competency. This is a lifelong journey.

Thanks so much for chatting with me, Christa!

Readers, what other questions do you have about supporting Asian students? Tweet us @HelloPresence. You can also connect with Christa through Instagram @christa_says or Linkedin here.

And to get started on your own education, check out this list of podcasts, these documentary recommendations, and these books — all by API creators. Christa particularly loves NPR’s Code Switch podcast, PBS’s Asian Americans docuseries, and Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America, along with @Michellekimkim, @DearAsianAmericans, and @asians4antiracism on Instagram.

Jodi Tandet

About the author: Jodi Tandet loves writing about the complexities of campus life as the Lead Storyteller at Presence. She's also passionate about making homemade ice cream, forging peace agreements between her calico cat and lab/dachshund mix, and listening to a debatably unhealthy number of podcasts. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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