What Is Asian American Studies?

Find out more about Asian American studies programs. Explore career options for graduates with a degree in Asian American studies.

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by Whitney Sandoval

Published on July 7, 2021 · Updated on July 22, 2022

Reviewed by Angelique Geehan

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What Is Asian American Studies?
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Judy Tzu-Chun Wu — a professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Irvine and the director of the Humanities Center — defines Asian American studies as "an interdisciplinary field of study that centers the experiences, history, culture, and representations of people of Asian ancestry as they encountered U.S. society as immigrants, refugees, colonized subjects, and American-born individuals."

Beginning as an activist movement, this field has transformed to include an extensive reflection of diverse Asian American cultures and the impact of Asian American history on American heritage.

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Judy Tzu-Chun Wu

Judy Tzu-Chun Wu is a professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Irvine and the director of the Humanities Center. She received her Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford University and previously taught at The Ohio State University. She also serves on the editorial board for the University of California Press and the U.S. in the World Series with Cornell University Press. She is the co-president of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians.

The History of Asian American Studies

In the late 1960s, social protests calling for diversifying higher education brought Asian American studies to light. Wu explains, "These protests sought to change the composition of the student body so that higher education could be accessible for those traditionally marginalized and excluded."

Over the last several decades, Asian American studies has evolved from primarily focusing on the male experience to branching out into the experiences of women and nonbinary Asians, as well. Wu reports that Asian American studies currently investigates "the ways in which gender shaped immigration, refugee relocation, war and colonialism, family structures, and citizenship."

Asian American studies has also shifted from focusing primarily on Asian cultures that have been more dominant, such as those from China, Japan, and the Philippines, to exploring cultures from all parts of Asia, including the Pacific Islands, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and West Asia.

Why Asian American Studies?

According to a 2019 Census Bureau estimate, about 5.7% of Americans — or 18.9 million people — identify as Asian American. As this population continues to grow, understanding how Asian Americans have helped shape the United States and dissecting how attitudes toward Asian Americans have changed throughout time has become increasingly important.

By studying Asian American culture and history, learners also gain deeper insight into the American experience as a whole. "The topics and methods that we explore in Asian American studies raise fundamental questions about the identity of the U.S. nation and its peoples," says Wu.

Students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds benefit from analyzing and thinking critically about how attitudes toward race develop and how identity is formed and changed over time.

How Has Asian American Studies Developed Over Time?

According to the Association for Asian American Studies, 32 universities offer Asian American studies programs.

The field of Asian American studies has developed over time. "The early framing of study emphasized that Asians in the U.S. constituted part of the American national experience. Later works explored the transnational connections between Asians in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world," Wu explains.

While college programs cover broad Asian American perspectives, cultural representation is also important within the K-12 education system. The California Department of Education created and is working on implementing the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, which includes teaching Asian American studies to primary and secondary school-aged children.

What Does an Asian American Studies Program Cover Today?

Asian American studies programs offer coursework in social studies, arts, and the humanities. According to Wu, "courses range from introductory classes on history, community, culture, and storytelling to more specialized classes that focus on thematic and ethnicity-specific topics, such as Asian American women, Korean transnational adoption, and Bollywood."

Depending on the program, courses may cover topics like Asian-Black historical relations in the U.S., Asian Americans and popular culture, and Asian American religions. Through these and many other courses, participants study Asian American voices and learn how Asian Americans have impacted the U.S. and the world.

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Common Asian American Studies Learning Outcomes

Students may reflect on social differences by learning about various customs and traditions associated with Asian American cultures. Coursework may introduce these cultures through historical, political, and/or economic perspectives. Asian American studies often requires students to think critically about themselves and the world around them. By reading about issues from a variety of perspectives and studying historical events, learners can develop the ability to interpret information and ask better questions. According to Wu, important foundational questions related to Asian American studies include, "Why did these attitudes and representations arise? How do economic insecurities and global conflict exacerbate these racial divides? And how are these attitudes expressed through policy, social movements, popular culture, and personal interactions?" Students can gain an understanding of Asian American culture and history, as well as how that perspective is interconnected globally. Learners might gain a deeper global awareness by studying topics like immigration, colonization, and the portrayal of Asian Americans in various cultures. Students may also be asked to approach topics with an open mind and be informed about and respectful toward sensitive topics in history and culture. Many Asian American studies programs feature ample reading and writing assignments, giving students opportunities to create engaging and informative essays. Students may also develop active-listening skills and learn the importance of keeping an open mind to others' ideas. Coursework may also include team projects, giving learners the chance to share ideas and work as part of a group.

Is An Asian American Studies Degree Worth It?

Depending on a student's long-term career goals, earning a degree in Asian American studies can be lucrative. For instance, students who earn an Asian American studies degree who also take courses in finance, Asian languages, or economics could pursue careers as international marketing specialists, international financial advisors, or international interpreters. Those who complete advanced degrees can find jobs in higher education.

However, because Asian American studies could be considered a relatively narrow field, prospective students who are unsure of their specific career plans might want to consider taking individual Asian American courses or a minor instead of majoring in the field.

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