Virginia Tech President Tim Sands and Menah Pratt-Clarke, vice president for strategic affairs and diversity, held a virtual town hall Monday to discuss APIDA (Asian/Pacific Islander/Desi American) and Asian International concerns, primarily ones that related to recent violence centered toward the Asian community in the United States.

Pratt-Clarke served as the host of the town hall, which marked the latest event in the #VTUnfinished conversation series. Panel guests included Guru Ghosh, vice president for outreach and international affairs; Jessica Nguyen, president of the Asian American Student Union; Silas Cassinelli, assistant professor in the Department of English; and Nina Ha, director of the Asian Cultural Engagement Center.

The #VTUnfinished series focuses on conversations about identity, and more often than not, race. The purpose of the town hall was to discuss more in detail certain current and historical issues in the APIDA community and to bring more visibility to those issues.

“We know that the recent surge in violent and racist acts has been traumatic for you,” Sands said, speaking to the APIDA community. “We know that these things are not new and they’re not just happening elsewhere. They happen in our community as well. Our community campus is not immune, and this is an opportunity for us to have this conversation frankly and directly." 

Below are some of the topics highlighted during the discussion. Watch the full town hall, streamed via YouTube.

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APIDA population is hurting

According to the Stop Asian-American Pacific Islander Hate website, nearly 3,800 racist incidents against Asian Americans took place in the United States between March 2020 and February 2021. Virginia Tech has reported no violent acts against its Asian student population, but the incidents around the country still take a mental toll, according to Nguyen, a second-generation Vietnamese-American student studying philosophy, politics, and economics, along with Asian studies.

“Our community is collectively grieving,” Nguyen said. “Every day, we hear about these instances of violence, and it’s hard to grapple with, especially as full-time students. We’ve been grieving together.”

Virginia Tech officials put out a statement March 4 condemning the rise of anti-Asian hate and updated that statement March 18, including a list of on-campus resources that help to support APIDA students.

“It’s really underscored how important community is,” Cassinelli said of the recent events. “Not just as a space to hear each other, but to help each other find language to describe how we’re feeling and what we need because it’s OK if we don’t know immediately what we need or how we’re feeling just because of the pain and the numbness.

“So, for my students, that’s a community I think about a lot, just giving them space and letting them know they can come and talk to me about things in class that are certainly related, but also they can check in and give themselves space that they need.”

The recent acts of violence have brought the APIDA community together, not just at Virginia Tech, but throughout the country. The intercollegiate APIDA coalition, composed of collegiate Asian American organizations, has been raising money to help with the group’s mission, which is to promote and advance the issues important to the APIDA student population.

“A lot of our organizations are hosting fundraisers to raise money for organizations that have been advocating for the APIDA community,” Nguyen said. “We’ve seen a lot more collaboration among everyone. Even though these events are so tragic, they’ve definitely brought us together as a community, and we’re thankful to have each other to lean on for support.”

More education is needed

All of the panel agreed that more education is needed at all levels. The members want to see more Asian American subjects taught in schools and at the college level.

“Asian American studies are so important because … it demonstrates that we’re a part of the U.S. fabric,” Ha said.

“We need educational institutions to implement Asian American studies programs because even I had very little knowledge of Asian American history until I got to college and I decided to study Asian studies and get involved in an Asian American history class,” Nguyen said.

In addition, Ghosh would like to see Asian American students visit local elementary, middle, and high schools. When he was an undergraduate student at Marycrest College in Davenport, Iowa, he went to a local school and showed the students how to cook Indian food. He noticed how engaged the students became in that situation.

“I think it’s of real importance that we mobilize our student body to get involved in getting into the school systems of our communities … We need to form a core within the student body that will go out into the school system and not just teach kids at various levels, but also work with and train teachers," Ghosh said.

“We have to teach teachers as well how to work with these complex issues around racial tensions and xenophobia and ignorance. Hate and ignorance, in my mind, are interconnected and we shouldn’t try to speak about one and not the other.”

Asian Americans getting involved

Many of those in the APIDA community take a backseat role regarding social issues. They prefer to remain passive, detach themselves from political issues, and simply assimilate within a society.

But Nguyen feels that type of mindset needs to change – and that it is changing in light of the recent episodes of violence.

“As we are dealing with these tragedies, we can see it start to deconstruct in ways,” she said. “Many young leaders are speaking out. The APIDA population across the country is being more vocal, and I’m witnessing it firsthand.

“So often we are encouraged to stay out of politics, but our identities are just so inherently politicized now that, as a Vietnamese American, as a Vietnamese woman, I cannot detach my identity from politics. It’s something that we need to be involved in.”

Looking to the future

Ghosh probably said it best when discussing solutions to the racial issues in today’s society.

“Being different doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re in adversarial positions with one another,” he said. “The human is race is more important than one individual race.”

The panel offered many suggestions to alleviate racial tensions at the local level over the course of the 90-minute discussion, focusing on educating oneself, becoming involved in various programs, and attending events at Virginia Tech.

“You need educate yourself and be proactive rather than relying on just individual people to be your go-to person,” Ha said. The ACE [Asian Cultural Engagement] center as well as all the cultural and community centers are centers of educating and learning, so we want to encourage everyone to attend our events that are intentional.”

People on campus and in the New River Valley can start attending those events immediately, as April represents APIDA Heritage Month. For a complete schedule of events, please click here.  

— Written by Jimmy Robertson