A Student’s Guide to Asian American Studies

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By Staff Writers

Published on June 29, 2021

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Reviewed by Angelique Geehan

The first Asian American studies programs were introduced in 1969 by the University of California, Berkeley; San Francisco State University; and the University of California, Los Angeles. At these institutions, students wished to expand the eurocentric focus of typical college curricula with various ethnic studies programs.

With the help of supportive faculty members, students pressured administrators to provide an academic platform to honor Asian American experiences. Courses in these early Asian American studies programs included Koreans in America, wartime relocation experiences, and comparative analysis of Asian American community organizations.

Today, many accredited colleges offer majors and minors in Asian American studies, giving students the opportunity to explore perspectives and histories often overlooked in general narratives of American identity.

Defining Asian American Studies

Asian American studies is an interdisciplinary field that explores the contributions, roles, and experiences of Asian diasporic populations in the U.S. Coursework prompts students to explore Asian American communities as a network of sociologically and politically diverse groups.

Many Asian American studies programs offer courses focusing on specific ethnic groups or academic lenses. Core courses generally touch on key topics, such as immigration, assimilation, xenophobia, and systemic racism.

What Can I Expect to Learn in an Asian American Studies Program?

Although curricula vary by school and concentration, Asian American studies courses generally examine the history, migration, and lived experiences of Asian populations in the United States. Students may also learn of the economic and political systems or push factors present in regions with large diasporic populations.

Courses are generally intersectional, incorporating elements of history, feminist theory, political discourse, and critical race theory to illustrate the heterogeneous identities of Asian Americans. Courses may also draw from a variety of materials, including visual art, film, and fiction.

Through Asian American studies, learners can gain key skills and professional competencies. Reading- and writing-heavy courses bolster students' written communication skills. Students also exercise complex reasoning and expand their cultural insights.

Common Courses in Asian American Studies Programs

Contemporary Asian American Communities

This course details the complex structures, dynamics, and challenges of Asian American communities. The curriculum focuses on themes of racism, immigration, assimilation, and transnational identity. Students learn about the social and economic issues affecting Asian Americans and the relationships between Asian Americans and other groups.

Asian American Literature and Culture

This humanities course celebrates the works and contributions of Asian Americans in fiction, poetry, media, music, film, and the performing arts. Students explore how creators portray shared cultural experiences in their art. Learners also examine how artists' depictions of characters and communities differ from popular depictions of Asian identities.

Asian American Women

In this course, learners study the intersecting identities of Asian women of different ethnicities, generations, and social classes. This course explores how structural factors like colonialism, immigration, and capitalism have impacted the experiences and social roles of Asian women in the United States.

Cultural Politics in Southeast Asian Diaspora

In this course, students examine the migration and diaspora of Southeast Asian communities. The curriculum largely focuses on populations from Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and the Philippines. Students use nonfiction materials, literature, and a variety of creative media to explore how the collective experiences of war and genocide have impacted culture.

Asian American Studies Concentrations

Some programs offer concentrations that focus on specific aspects of the Asian American experience. Some concentrations, including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Philipinx studies, explore the contributions and experiences of these specific groups.

Asian American and Diaspora Studies

This concentration explores the migration patterns and social infrastructures within Asian diasporic communities, focusing primarily on Asians in North America and the United States. Courses examine minority-majority relationships, specifically how attitudes towards Asian Americans have evolved with the cultural and political shifts of receiving countries.

Asian Comparative Studies

Using comparative methodology, this concentration allows learners to juxtapose two or more Asian populations or regions. Through interdisciplinary learning, students gain insights on the foundations of ethnic identity, exploring the shared features and distinctions between focal populations.

Chinese Studies

Because of the heterogeneous nature of Asian American experiences, some students prefer to narrow their area of study to those of a particular group. A Chinese studies concentration supplements a more generalized curriculum with an in-depth focus on Chinese culture, history, literature, language, and philosophy. Courses may also examine China's global influence and analyze how political and economic shifts have impacted both domestic and diasporic populations.

South Asian Studies

This concentration focuses largely on the historical and contemporary experiences of populations from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Courses encourage an intersectional analysis of South Asian groups, taking gender, class, and ethnicity into account. Coursework may also touch on the cultural influence of religion.

What Can I Do With an Asian American Studies Degree?

Individuals with a degree in Asian American studies can excel in a variety of areas, especially if they pursue additional credentials or a graduate-level education.

Graduates can serve their communities as community service managers. If they go on to earn a law degree, they might advocate for underserved clients as lawyers, specializing in immigration or discrimination cases. A graduate-level education can also prepare individuals to become academic leaders, facilitating discourse as professors or writers. Earning an Asian American studies degree provides a solid academic foundation for a variety of pursuits.

Community Service Manager

These professionals coordinate with stakeholders and community members to organize programs and services that benefit various communities.

Median Annual Salary: $69,600


To become a lawyer, individuals must earn a law degree in addition to their Asian American studies degree. These professionals represent or advise clients on legal matters; handle documents; and interface with judges, corporate actors, and government agencies.

Median Annual Salary: $126,930


ostsecondary educators are experts in their academic fields and lead discourse in a classroom setting. Some professors conduct research or write about their areas of expertise. Professors are typically required to hold a doctorate, though some institutions may employ faculty who only hold a master's degree.

Median Annual Salary: $80,790

How to Choose an Asian American Studies Program

There are several factors that students should consider when choosing a college and looking at Asian American studies programs. Undergraduate education can be a hefty investment, with many schools charging over $55,000 in annual tuition, excluding additional expenses, such as room and board, books, and meal plans.

Fortunately, students can pursue a number of more accessible options. State schools tend to be more affordable than private schools, especially for state residents. Many institutions offer need-based and merit-based aid to reduce tuition costs.

Students can also supplement tuition costs with a variety of scholarships and grants. Pursuing a degree in Asian American studies online can be a more accessible option for those balancing school and work commitments.

Students should also determine whether they would like to commute to classes or live on campus. Learners seeking an on-campus experience might consider the logistics of traveling to and from campus and determine their preferred distance from home. These learners might also consider whether they prefer a rural, suburban, or urban campus setting.

Some schools might offer online Asian American studies programs for students looking for additional flexibility. Students should also research a school's accreditation status to ensure that they attend a reputable institution.

Should I Get an Asian American Studies Degree?

Career options closely linked to ethnic studies often require a graduate degree. However, whether they enter the workforce with a bachelor's or pursue additional education, graduates with a background in Asian American studies can find careers that make use of their communication skills and cultural insights.

Some students who earn an Asian American studies degree go on to find rewarding careers in the growing social services field. For example, between 2019 and 2029, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 17% job growth for community service managers.

Ultimately, a degree in Asian American studies equips students with the interdisciplinary education, professional competencies, mentorship opportunities, and network needed to pursue a variety of in-demand careers.

Related Pages

Busting the Model Minority Myth of Asian Americans Financial Aid Opportunities for Students of Color Scholarships for Asian American Pacific Islander Students

Reviewed by:

Angelique works to support and repair the connections people have to themselves and their families, communities, and cultural practices. She builds intergenerationally, with a commitment to transformative justice, to question and depolarize the beliefs and practices that can lead to isolation and feelings of powerlessness — and co-create or reclaim ways that can promote resilience and healing from historical and social harms.

A queer asian gender-binary non-conforming parent, Angelique founded Interchange, a consulting group that offers anti-oppression support through materials and process assessments, staff training, and community building. She organizes as a part of National Perinatal Association’s Health Equity Workgroup, the Health and Healing Justice Committee of the National Queer and Trans Asian and Pacific Islander Alliance, the Houston Community Accountability and Transformative Justice Collective, the Taking Care Study Group, QTPOC+ Family Circle, and Batalá Houston.

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