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Continuing the conversations started during the Asian and Pacific Islander American Summit in March, a panel on A/PIAs in academia was held Thursday evening, bringing together seven panelists from across all levels at the University of Michigan to answer questions about their experiences in the field from moderator and event organizer Paulina Fraser, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Education, and from the audience.

Fraser said the summit inspired her to organize this event as a capstone to A/PIA Heritage Month.

“After going to the summit, I wanted to do something that combined both the graduate students, faculty, post-docs and undergraduates and just get some exposure, in terms of who are the A/PIA students and faculty here,” Fraser said. “Just to increase awareness to undergraduates or other community members who might be thinking about (academia) but have never seen themselves represented here.”

Kalia Vang, a Hmong-American and master’s student in the School of Public Policy, came to the event because one of her friends was a panelist, but felt she could relate to the stories of all seven speakers and appreciated the representation Fraser mentioned.

“As one of few Hmong students here on campus … I think it’s a huge accomplishment but also a unique burden to be someone with a background where your community is not represented in academic spaces,” Vang said. “Coming here is sort of a great way to learn about the experiences of other Asian Americans from similar backgrounds and just sort of learn how to deal with some of the microaggressions or unique challenges that come with it.”

The event began with introductions from each speaker. Though the speakers all came from unique backgrounds, many themes appeared throughout each of their individual stories. One of these themes included the search for visibility and others who looked like them in their educational experiences. Nue Lee, a Ph.D. student in the School of Education, articulated this in her introduction.

“What led me to the (University’s) program was my overall undergraduate experience of being the oldest of seven from a refugee family and being the first to go to college,” Lee said. “When I got to college … I didn’t see myself reflected in the research, whether it was in the textbooks or in the scholarly research that was being read.”

Amy Stillman, professor and director of the A/PIA Studies program, came to the University in 1989 to help grow the A/PIA Studies program. She, too, went into academia because she felt the need to advocate for herself in a place where there was no one else to do so.

“I had this wake-up moment in an anthropology class about Hawaiians, which was taught by a non-Hawaiian … who made a point of saying the real, traditional culture of Hawaiians was dead … contemporary Hawaiians had moved so far away that we were living in cultural degradation,” Stillman said. “And I remember thinking … if I want to talk back to these people with any degree of credibility, I need a Ph.D. too.”

After introductions, the panel moved into a discussion on mentorship. Many of the speakers talked about an inability to find mentors of A/PIA heritage in their earlier education. Laura-Ann Jacobs, a Ph.D. student in the School of Education, said while her dissimilar mentors still provided her with valuable assistance, there was something important in having a mentor to whom she could actually relate.

“When I was choosing graduate schools, there were some programs where my adviser would have been a man, someone with a different identity from me, and I thought there’s something here that I’m not sure that you’re going to give me what I need and fulfill me personally on this emotional journey of grad school,” Jacobs said.

Other panelists talked about the importance of not just finding your own mentors, but also being someone else’s mentor. Bernard Ellorin, a lecturer from the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, also brought up the idea of support groups between peers as a way to cope with the challenges of being a minority and graduate school in general.

“(I’ve dealt with challenges) by having a small group of friends and individuals who are in the same position as you, who know the same struggles and who you can actually confide in,” Ellorin said.

The panel then turned to a discussion on imposter syndrome — the idea that a high-achieving individual might feel like they don’t deserve their accomplishments and are afraid of being exposed as a fraud.

Carmen Ye, a master’s student in the School of Public Policy, said she had a difficult time realizing that she actually deserved many of the things she’d earned in her early academic career. She told the story of working hard to be accepted into a specific program as an undergraduate, and feeling like she wasn’t worthy when she finally got in.

“I spent the whole summer believing the program was going to send me back to California,” Ye said. “I’d already made it here, I was in the classes, but I just felt like something bad was going to happen and that I didn’t deserve to be here. One solution to that is I need to keep telling myself every day that I am here because I deserve to be.”

Later on in the talk, an audience member posed the question of when and how to call out a superior’s microaggressions. All the panelists acknowledged the difficulty of this question and said there was no one true answer. Jacobs said when she encounters a situation like this, she tries to pose the statement as a question back to whoever said it to make them aware of how what they said sounded.

“I’d say that’s a really difficult question, especially being conscious of relationships of power,” Jacobs said. “It makes you want to silent yourself and not speak up for yourself — girl, I’ve been there. But just being like, ‘What do you mean by that?’ and just repeat it like that, it seems less threatening, like the best advice for an in-the-moment situation.”

Stillman built off that answer, bringing up the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan the University rolled out this fall. She said the plan isn’t reaching the department level, where many of these microaggressions and harmful actions are taking place.

“How can we close the gap between what our experience is in the citizenry and make sure that those committed to the principles of DEI are very, very clear about what’s going on?” she said. “Speaking up at the moment of microaggressions, not letting it go by, is an important personal step … it also is a very important step in this institutional journey we’re on.”

The panel ended with each speaker giving the audience a piece of advice they try to live by. Lee summed up the purpose of the panel with her statement.

“I think it’s important to remember your roots and see if that can develop through your research agenda or your studies or the classes you want to take,” Lee said. “That will help develop growth and strengthen identity.” 

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