Members of the University of Maryland’s Asian American studies program, the Asian American Student Union and other campus community members are working to expand the current Asian American studies minor into a major — an effort that has been in the works for decades.

The department and student union hosted a town hall meeting Wednesday to discuss the next steps in creating a major from feedback from a student survey. Janelle Wong, the Asian American studies program director, said the relationship between the program and the AASU is something unique to this university that she has not seen before.

“This curriculum, this minor, and the whole Asian American studies program is really the result of student activism,” Wong said.

At the meeting, Wong discussed the results of a survey AAST minors and students enrolled in Asian American studies classes took. Out of 144 respondents, 36 percent said they would consider enrolling in an AAST major, which Wong said she considers to be a good foundation for creating a major. The survey also found that most students would take the major in addition to another major.

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Students who took the survey asked how they would apply a potential Asian American studies major to their professional lives, which the department sees as an opportunity to host alumni panels and career development workshops, Wong said.

Other student demands included offering more courses regardless of whether the department establishes a major. Wong said to meet this demand, the department needs to hire more staff. They currently have only two full-time faculty and two joint appointments, which Wong said is equivalent to three total full-time faculty.

In their previous meetings with this university’s Provost Jennifer King Rice, program members said the school would prefer if they rely on affiliate faculty, or staff who already work full time for a different department and have no contractual agreement with AAST. However, faculty from other departments mentioned at the town hall the importance of pushing back on this idea to diminish the workload for faculty who already teach multiple courses.

When comparing other Asian American studies programs across the country, the program found most schools with a major and a minor have at least 12 full-time faculty, while programs with just a minor have eight. Searching for more faculty is one of the department’s preliminary steps toward creating a major.

Other majors created at this university have required approval from their respective academic colleges, as well as the University Senate, the university president, the Board of Regents and the Maryland General Assembly.

The town hall meeting was a part of an ongoing process to expand Asian American studies at this university. The efforts date back to the late 1990s as students and faculty worked together to create and expand the AAST program at the university, according to a documentary played at the town hall.

Junior theatre major Nelson Chen, is co-vice president of external affairs for the Asian American Student Union and helped organize the town hall. He said that last year, the student union’s executive board sent a memorandum to university President Darryll Pines, Rice and other administrators asking for an Asian American studies major.

Wong said the university has been supportive of these ongoing efforts.

Chen said any student at this university could benefit from double majoring in Asian American studies. As a theatre major, what he has learned from his classes in the minor has influenced his work as a playwright, he said.

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“There’s a lot to be uncovered and a lot that still isn’t taught in Asian American studies,” Chen said. “Having a major would greatly expand people’s horizons.”

AJ Saquilayan, a senior civil and environmental engineering major and Asian American studies minor, said she plans on using what she learned in her minor classes to make sure the projects she works on in her career are equitable. Saquilayan said Asian American studies classes are important for STEM students to take.

“There’s a lot of issues that I’ve learned a lot about, like redlining, from Asian American studies classes and environmental racism,” Saquilayan said. “That has really almost given me a new ‘why’ as to why I’m in my major.”

Saquilayan is also co-president of the Asian American Student Union and got involved with efforts to expand Asian American studies after the student union hosted a vigil in 2021 for the victims of the Atlanta spa shooting.

She hopes the program expands into more ethnic-specific courses, so the university can become a leader in Asian American studies in the Washington metro area.

“I’m hoping that we just are able to include more of our student body, their voices and their experiences into those classes,” Saquilayan said