While a double major in Biology and Studio Art at Colgate University, a predominantly-white university in Upstate New York, my coursework provided challenging STEM curricula and liberal arts classes steeped in the classical Western tradition. However, I did not realize what I was not learning (and had desperately, subconsciously been seeking to learn) until a guest speaker came to our little, snow laden school in the “middle of somewhere.”

As a junior in college, I joined a newly formed club called the “Organization of Asian Sisters in Solidarity,” which brought Asian American and Asian international women and femmes together (a small group of about ten of us) to discuss our experiences at a predominantly-white campus. We did not have a single Asian American Studies class on campus, and at 20, I did not even know that Asian American Studies was a field with an activist history stemming from 1968 strikes which originated in San Francisco, the California Bay Area where I was born and raised. We, naively, decided to find guest speakers of Asian American background to bring to campus via Google search. Somehow, we convinced a famous Asian American activist, Helen Zia, to visit.

When Helen Zia came to campus, our small club and about forty or so students and faculty gathered in the Women’s Studies Center for a lunch time discussion. Even as a co-organizer of the talk, I had no idea how pivotal Helen was to the development of Asian American Studies. (Six years later, I kick myself for not making a bigger deal out of the event or trying to get an even larger turn out, despite having already invited all of my friends on campus). Helen’s talk was based on her book, Asian American Dreams (2000), and she drew out personal anecdotes such as: why she chose to work in an autofactory instead of going the STEM route; her journalism and activism surrounding the unjust murder of Vincent Chin in 1982; her experience coming-out in the public eye; and what it means to have Asian American dreams. [The image is my visual notes taken of this event].

Helen Zia coming to Colgate was the first of many humanities moments that catalyzed my life path toward a drastically different direction than I thought it would take in 2016. In college, I was a Biology honors student who spent hours in the lab studying the relationship between mitochondrial damage and cancer and dreamed of becoming a pediatrician. However, after graduation, instead of going forward with my plans, I finally found the time to read Helen Zia’s Asian American Dreams (2000) in its entirety. It was the first Asian American Studies book I’d ever read and it inspired me to pursue my MA in Asian American Studies at UCLA and now my PhD in Cultural Studies at Davis, where I am a Teaching Assistant in the Asian American Studies Department.

It saddens me to know that Ethnic Studies courses continue to be few and far between but I am hopeful that work in Asian American Studies, as well as African American Studies, Chicanx and Latinx Studies, and Indigenous and Native American Studies, will continue to emerge in our higher education and K-12 classrooms.

– Angel Trazo (PhD student in Cultural Studies at UC Davis)