Anti-Racism & Social Justice in Education Abroad

The following messages appeared in the April 20, 2021 Special Edition of the Forum News.

Dear Colleagues,

Today’s Special Edition of the Forum News centers and amplifies voices of colleagues in the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Violence against Asian Americans has increased 150% since the pandemic’s arrival in the United States just over a year ago, but the violence and hatred exhibited towards this community is not new. It is deeply rooted in our society’s history and we must work harder as a country, as a field, and as individuals to combat racism wherever and whenever it appears. We are truly grateful for and humbled by the authors in today’s edition, who have chosen to share their reflections on recent events with all of us.

The Forum on Education Abroad is committed to advancing equity, diversity and inclusion and eliminating structural racism and inequities within our organization, the field of education abroad, and our communities. We are outraged at the perpetuation of unjust systems and the violence against people of color. We are doing the hard work of looking at our own organization’s policies and processes, knowing that we must keep taking steps to do better; we are learning, we are listening, and we are acting. We would love to hear your thoughts on additional ways that The Forum can support your work on anti-racism and social justice in education abroad. We invite you to please reach out to with feedback or ideas.

Melissa A. Torres (she/her/hers)
President & CEO
The Forum on Education Abroad

United we stand, divided we fall

Xia (Amy) Zhang, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Accounting, International Program Coordinator, College of Business & Public Affairs
Alabama A&M University

Recently, amid nationwide rallies against anti-Asian hate crimes, many people no matter what color, race, or origin voice out their support for Asian Americans on newspaper, magazines, TV stations, and social media in the U.S. Like other Asian women, I am asked the same question: “What it is like to be an Asian woman in the US?” Looking back at the 21 years living in the U.S., from an F-1 international student to obtain my master’s degree and Ph.D. degree to become a full-time accounting professor at Alabama A&M University, as an Asian American, I feel blessed to become part of the melting pot with people from around the world contributing to the development of the United States with my passion and love for this country, my vitality and energy, and my value on parenthood and career success, and pervasive belief in the rewards of hard work.

According to the survey findings from Pew Research Center in 2012 report on Asian Americans “The Rise of Asian Americans,” about one-in-five Asian Americans say they have personally been treated unfairly because they are Asian. I still clearly recall the scene in the summer of 2010 when my 5-year-old son Timothy came back home from the summer camp with tears in his eyes. “Mom, I will not bring the Chinese food for lunch because the kids say my food looks weird,” he said. I nestled him in my arms to comfort him. “Make friends with them to let them learn more about our food and you. Do not fear,” I told him. Later, his friendly character and easy-going personality wins welcoming smiles from the friends in different colors and race around him at the middle school band, high school swim team, and regular classes. I once joked with Timothy: “You are so popular, you have friends from all over the world.” He smiled with gratitude and satisfaction. As a matter of fact, no matter where we are, the society is becoming more and more diverse. Diversity, almost everyone agrees, is good; choice is good; exposure to different cultures and ideas is good.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in spring 2020, Asian Americans have been on the frontline fighting the pandemic and protecting America. Not only we supported families and doctors in Asia, but also, we actively engaged in the local communities around the nation to contribute our loving heart and caring actions to help each other to overcome the challenges we face together. For example, in the Chinese community in Huntsville, AL, in which I am involved, 67 families and businesses, donated $63,788 in cash, personal protective equipment (PPE) and food to local non-profit organizations including four hospitals, Huntsville and Madison Police Departments, Madison Fire and Rescue, about seven nursing homes, three local churches, Madison City Schools, American Red Cross, United Way, Downtown Recue, Manna House, and Alabama A&M University. On Mother’s Day of 2020, also the Chinese American Food of Love Day, our Chinese community donated 70 boxes of lunch and bouquets of flowers to medical doctors and nurses at Huntsville Hospital, Madison Hospital, and Athens Hospital. We are proud of our Chinese community—a caring and diligent community. We actively assimilate ourselves into America with new environments and standards of living while retaining our own cultural and ethnic heritage.

Reflecting on my six years of service at Alabama A&M University, my service philosophy follows the AAMU motto: “Service Is Sovereignty.” I strive to maintain respectful collaborative relationships with students, colleagues, community partners, neighbors, and friends in the very diverse society. Like every Asian American, I would like to be united with the diverse people around me, as the old saying goes “United we stand, divided we fall.” Let’s embrace the bright future with our attitude, “I Care, You Care, We all Care,” to overcome the challenges at this trying pandemic time.

Now It Feels More Urgent Than Ever

Fang Du, Ph.D.
Assistant Dean of Curriculum Integration, Rutgers Global–Study Abroad
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

I have been working in the field of global education for over 20 years and now it feels more urgent than ever to champion global equity, diversity, and inclusion. Why? Because for the first time in my career, I witnessed the almost full-stop of international travel for students and faculty. Yet, the world needs more international collaboration to solve such complicated modern issues, such as a pandemic or global social justice issues. In addition, for the first time in my personal life as an East Asian woman, I began to have fear of going out to a shopping mall or taking a walk in an unfamiliar park, due to the escalation of anti-Asian violence in the past year. It is hard to know that people are being attacked simply because of their looks or the notion of “you don’t belong here”.

In the past 20+ years, many people have asked me why I choose global education as my career. My answer has always been “for world peace”. I truly mean it, literally. I believe that global education is essential to promote deep understanding of our common humanity and true appreciation of our differences in looks, behaviors, and cultures. I, along with all the colleagues in this field, have made this world a better place by facilitating international student and faculty travels and promoting collaborations of teaching, learning, and research. For years, I had assumed that should be enough.

Then the many events in the past year or so—including the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and now the Stop Asian Hate movement—have made me realize that global education as a field needs to work even harder to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion. I cannot help but wonder whether the seeds for the racism against Asian Americans or Asians worldwide have been planted earlier by such discourses as “Trade War against China”, “Kung Flu”, or “Model Minority” quite a while ago. Global education practitioners are working against institutionalized racism deeply seated in many subtle organizational structures and the daily rhetoric.

Despite the complicated obstacles ahead, I still believe that global education can combat racism in its many forms and shapes. There are still many small things in real life assure me that global education is making a difference. For example, on one weekend in early April, my family and I were at Tuckahoe Turf Farms in New Jersey for a soccer tournament while there are many “Stop Asian Hate” protests around the country happening at the same time. We see multi-generations of people of all skin colors, looks, cultures, and immigration histories gathering in one place having a good time together. I know at least some of the grass used for the tournament was a research product of the Center for Turfgrass Sciences of Rutgers University, a university that sponsors many activities in global education every year. The same grass is also used in Shanghai for its renowned golf courses. This trade is made possible by a Rutgers alum who originally came from China. The moment was an epitome of a crisis unfolding but, at the same time, an opportunity emerging for the field of global education.

Jessica H. Sun
Doctoral Candidate, Exec EdD in Higher Ed Management
University of Pennsylvania GSE

Since the Atlanta shootings, a series of hate crimes have been committed against the AAPI community. The Trump Administration’s incendiary rhetoric surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly escalated the violence against my community. However, let me be clear: racism against my community has existed well before the pandemic and continues each day. Painfully, it also exists in our field, both in in the experiences of students and professionals.

As a student studying abroad in Europe, I had encounters that shook my reality. I learned that discrimination and racism permeate beyond the U.S. borders. I had adult men and women smile at me and pull the ends of their eyes upward. In a particular instance in front of a famous landmark, a man jokingly gestured that it was time for me to leave because a Chinese tour group was exiting towards their next destination, even though clearly, I was not wearing the branded accessories. They all thought it was funny and a way to connect. I felt so alone. There was no venue nor person for which I could share my anxieties. Processing these encounters has taken years because I had no preparation before nor debrief after my study abroad experience.

As a professional and a person of Chinese heritage, unsolicited, I received a promotion to manage an international partnership with a Chinese university. I had only worked at the U.S. institution for less than a year. I hope that my qualifications such as language were what secured the promotion, not my “foreignness.” I will admit that I did nothing to question my selection and chose to remain silent on the undertones of why I was afforded the role. Research has shown that AAPI individuals are rarely given promotions, so it was hard to question an opportunity that fell into my lap. The model minority myth bleeds into this dynamic. Because AAPI individuals appear “to excel,” we may appear to not require targeted mentorship or resources, but the fact remains there are fewer AAPI individuals reflected in management positions across many industries.

I have felt tokenized as a professional at other times, too. At one university, my identity as a person of color was repeatedly touted as an asset because I was a “diverse hire.” But to constantly have this repeated over and over again became wearisome, especially as organizational priorities focused on “filling seats” rather than creating an inclusive culture. We can pat ourselves on the back for the last few hires being “diverse,” but at what level are those positions? Do these individuals have a voice in positions of power? Is “diversity” reflected in higher levels of management?

Of course, I recognize that these personal examples are not violent. They are certainly more benign than what has prompted campaigns such as #StopAAPIHate. I am thankful that nothing I have encountered within the field has threatened my basic sense of physical security. But that just means the field is a work in progress. I am just one person and I’m sure others have stories to tell.

As a field, we need to reevaluate whose voices, stories and experiences are heard. Simply diversifying program location and providing scholarships are merely scratching the surface. Intentional and honest conversations must be paired with substantive actions that demonstrate that diversity, equity and inclusion are our core values and priorities. I would be remiss if I did not point to the fact that leadership in the field is still very homogenous. If persons of color are not among leadership, what guarantees do we have that current leaders will champion beyond superficial fixes in our field?

Furthermore, beyond structural diversity, we need to foster environments at home and abroad to equip students and professionals to respond justly in the face of racism. We have a responsibility to make sure our students of color know what it means to take their identity and place it within a different context. Ultimately, our institutions need to invest in creating responsive cultures that embrace progressive agendas that go beyond representation.

The Hate Crimes and Discrimination Against Asians and Asian Americans: My Reflection as an Asian-born Educator Studying in the US

Ha Nguyen, M.A.
Ph.D. Candidate, North Carolina State University

The increasing number of hate crimes and discrimination against Asians and Asian Americans (AAA) in the US over the past year has caused me to deeply reflect on my experience and values as an Asian-born educator studying in the US. Coming here on a Fulbright scholarship program with a mission to better mutual understandings between the two countries, I was eager to explore, by myself, the so-called American Dream. Now, my goals are questioned; I am wondering if the American Dream really exists.

Welcoming me on the first day of my work, my supervisor at the Friday Institute made a surprising statement: He would not be where he was if he were not a white male. I was surprised to hear that but did not quite understand. For a person coming from a homogeneous country where everyone looks like me and speaks the same language as me, racism is not a familiar term. I left the office, wondering. The more time I have spent in this country, the better I have come to understand what my supervisor was talking about. While my experience in the US is overwhelmingly positive with lots of support, help, and friendship (I even met an elderly couple whom I dearly call American parents), I sometimes found myself in incidents that left me wondering, “What has happened?” and” What have I done wrong?”

The question was left unanswered until four years ago in a class on the History of American Education System. In the middle of a passionate discussion on racism and discrimination against African Americans in the US, I asked: What do you think about this statement: “Yellow is the new black”? The entire class turned their head to look at me in confusion and shock. In contrast with the heated debate earlier, the room was filled with awkward silence. No one said a word until the professor asked me to elaborate on my question. It was also the end of the class that day.

Reflecting on the class that night, I realized that AAA was still an invisible minority group despite their significant contributions during the course of US history. Hate crimes and discrimination against this population have always been there, but they are just finally coming to light the past year. These acts of racism have been manifested in numerous ways, from serious crimes like the recent shooting in the Atlanta area and the murderer of the Thai American grandpa to hate incidents, such as vandalism and bullying. Although hard to identify and sometimes unspoken, hate incidents can happen every day to AAA, like experiences like my own, where I was the first in line but the last to be served.

These experiences and observations have led me to a crisis about my educational ideals. I came to the field of education 11 years ago because I believed in the power of education to make humans kinder and the world a better place. As an educator, I cannot stop asking myself, “What have we done wrong or not done that leads to this point?” I have wondered, “What can I do?” What shook me was the fact that the lack of awareness and indifference not only existed in rural areas where people lack access to educational opportunities but also in a classroom full of educators who were supposedly on the frontlines against racism and discrimination.

The experience and observation have also made me reflect on the so-called American Dream. The US is the land of immigrants where the Statue of Liberty shines the light to millions of immigrants who seek the American Dream. No matter how we arrive here, we all dream to become something bigger than ourselves, not only for us but also for many generations to come. It is ironic and painful that AAA still struggle to fight against hate crimes and discrimination every day just to survive in a country they are a part of. The Pledge of Allegiance, recited by generations of Americans, reads, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” How can we have liberty and justice when people of color do not yet feel safe to go outside their houses? How can we have liberty and justice when we are still unseen and unheard?

In the land of immigrants, there should not be racism and discrimination. Fighting against racism and discrimination should be the responsibility of each and every one of us. It is not just the issues of the AAA community, but for all, because we cannot be safe in an unjust society. The fight requires individual and collective efforts with short and long-term plans.

For short-term plans, it is crucial to call out not only serious hate crimes but also subtle hate incidents and bigotry. Any hate incidents like vandalism and bullying due to differences in ethnicity, gender, etc. should be called out before it gets too far. Second, we should help not only those who survive hate crimes but also those who are suffering trauma themselves or have lost loved ones from hate crimes and hate incidents. Third, we should portray a diversity of images of AAA to cover not only stories of success, fame, and prosperity, but also stories of sacrifice and struggles of many generations. Finally, we should celebrate the contribution of AAA in American history. From influential technology to scientific inventions to workers’ rights, AAA’s work has made significant impacts in improving people’s lives and the US’ global status.

For long-term plans, it is important to raise people’s awareness through education. People can be taught to not view AAA as “the others” through inclusive curriculum, programs, teacher professional development, and state policies. It is also important to have better representation of AAA in all schools, companies, and organizations. This will bring diverse perspectives to the narratives and make people of minority groups feel belong. I would feel different if I were not, often time, the only Asian in the classrooms.

In conclusion, while hate crimes and discrimination against AAA are disheartening and tragic, I still believe in a near future when all communities can go hand in hand again in a more just society. Lots of work still needs to be done but good people like my supervisor and those I have met give me hope in the dignity of American people. It is easy to give up, but it is in darkness that we need to unite, so that together, we reserve the American Dream. Nothing can sum up my words as beautifully as the poem, First They Came by Pastor Martin Niemoller.

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

Are You American Enough? Reflections on Being an Asian in America

Dr. Vishakha Desai
Senior Advisor for Global Affairs to President Lee C. Bollinger and Chair, Committee on Global Thought of Columbia University;
Chair, Board of Trustees, AFS Intercultural Programs

Like many Americans, I reacted to the recent murders of six Asian Americans in Atlanta with horror. That I wasn’t surprised only heightened my anguish.

Violence against Asian Americans has increased by 150 percent since the arrival of the pandemic in the United States, just over one year ago. For anyone with an even passing knowledge of Asian American history, such violence is consistent with the treatment of Americans of Asian origin for well over a century, going back to the Exclusion Act of 1882 and including the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, attacks against South Asian Americans following the 9/11 attacks, and many more examples.

As officials debate whether the Atlanta murders should be classified as a hate crime or not, in the context of Asian American history, one thing is clear: Violence against Asians Americans grows when there is tension between the U.S. and an Asian country — in this case, China. Asian Americans are typically identified as the “other”: Asian and foreign; not American enough. Ironically, what unites Americans of Asian origin is not their Asian-ness: They come from many diverse countries, with a dizzying variety of cultures and histories, and speak hundreds of different languages, even if the census defines them as a single entity. What unites them, in fact, is their shared experience of being seen as less than fully American. Their affinity and commitment to the United States comes under suspicion during times of trouble.

In many ways, Asian Americans are a perfect metaphor for understanding the American experience in the 21st century. A majority of them (59 percent) are foreign born, but a significant number claim generations of American-born ancestors. Most maintain connections to their ancestral homeland. But that doesn’t mean that they are less committed to America. The idea of a multiplicity of belongings — something inherent in the experience of Asian Americans — should be seen as an advantage for the United States, providing for a more capacious sense of global belonging that we so desperately need in the age of COVID-19 and the climate crisis. Instead, too often Asian Americans end up trapped in an unwelcome binary: claimed by neither Asia nor America, and belonging nowhere. Read more from Dr. Desai»

Jeena Kim
Senior International Programs Coordinator & Project Specialist
IES Abroad

It is difficult in the aftermath of tragedy to find the correct words. It is harder, still, for me to write about Atlanta because after days of drafting, I still don’t know how to feel, beyond angry, frustrated, and hurt. The incident itself is multi-faceted and made all the more complex by the addition of still more mass shootings in the intervening weeks. Yet despite these additional incidents, something about the Atlanta shootings feels uniquely exhausting and maddening.

In a series of galling, exasperating facts, not the least of which was the racism displayed by the communications officer first assigned to this case, the shooter’s assertion of race-blindness continues to grate on me as the one piece of this story that gets under my skin even more than the others. With Atlanta being a city with an Asian population of less than 4%, and six out of eight victims being Asian women, I cannot believe the regularity with which this unbelievable sentiment was reported without comment. Coverage on this story has improved since the story first broke, and there certainly were nuanced write-ups in a number of news sites. But as time passes, and the Atlanta spa shootings gets folded into the larger narrative of mass shootings, as ever more mass shootings occur, I do not want the details of this one to be lost in the shuffle.

Part of my reasoning is because it hits so close to home. My mother, like Suncha Kim, is a first-generation Korean immigrant, a grandmother, and she will turn 69 years old this year. And for a moment, let’s consider just Suncha Kim’s story: a 69-year old grandmother murdered while working at a massage parlor in a service industry position in the middle of a pandemic in which distance is synonymous with safety. The excuse the shooter gave for her murder was to remove his temptation to sin. That assertion is evidence of the shooter’s breathless degree of privilege, which is absolutely afforded to him in part by race: the privilege of feeling comfortable requesting in-person service during the pandemic; of looking upon Asian women and seeing only flat objects of temptation; of deciding that his inability to control himself outweighed eight individuals’ right to life. And critically, he has the privilege of determining that this story was not racially motivated, and to have that opinion deemed true enough for widespread circulation in initial reporting by several popular media outlets as the dominant narrative.

That kind of privilege is not afforded to people who look like my mother or me.  Not if this story was not about race.  And when I look at my daughter, who, at eleven-months of age, has a lifetime of being Asian ahead of her, I cannot help but fear that if things do not change, that kind of privilege will continue to be mobilized in violent and hateful ways against her.  Worse, still, I fear that the clearly racial aspect of that privilege will continue to be unremarkable and unremarked-upon.