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Emory creates Asian Student Center

Emory University took another step forward as a pacesetter for social justice in higher education with the opening this month of the Asian Student Center. The new identity space is one of Emory President Gregory L. Fenves’ initiatives to further the university’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Located in the Alumni Memorial University Center (AMUC), the new space was created for people of Asian, Pacific Islander and Desi American (APID/A) ancestry. The Center celebrated its grand opening on Sept. 8, but it was on the campus radar as early as spring 2019 when a small group of students met with Dona Yarbrough, assistant vice president of Campus Life, to ask that a center be created. 

“Our APID/A students constitute the largest nonwhite undergraduate student population on campus and remind us that they also face racism, bias and discrimination,” says Yarbrough. “They made a strong case that they need space to explore their own cultures and backgrounds, a place for advocacy and activism. We agreed with them, and President Fenves set the wheels in motion.”

Identity spaces matter 

“These spaces are really important to help formulate community within the nation’s Asian diaspora,” says Stephanie Zhang, an undergraduate member of the senior advisory board for APID/A, an Asian American identity and activism organization. 

To promote Asian stories, histories and student development, the center will host cultural and social events, as well as educational programs on Asian American and Asian-specific topics. Students can use the space for community organizing, group projects or simply hanging out.

“We really wanted to have a lot of educational and artistic material, so we have a lot of books in this space,” says Zhang, a senior with a philosophy and economics double major.

Enku Gelaye, senior vice president and dean of Campus Life, understands the value of identity spaces through her personal experience with the Black Cultural Center at the University of Tennessee during her undergraduate years.

“It gave me what our Asian Student Center and other identity spaces offer Emory students,” Gelaye says, explaining that Tennessee’s BCC helped her find her voice and sense of belonging in a new community. “These are welcoming places for students to engage in programs and access resources while connecting with students, staff and faculty with similar backgrounds and challenges.”

Overseen by Campus Life’s Office for Racial and Cultural Engagement (RACE), the Asian Student Center joins four other identity spaces created on campus over the years. They include the Emory Black Student Union (EBSU); Centro Latinx; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Life; and the Center for Women. Collectively, these spaces are called Belonging and Community Justice (BCJ).

Colleges and universities across the U.S. have created similar spaces to help improve college outcomes, relieve student stress, enhance life on campus and provide a sense of community for underrepresented students.

While the Asian Student Center was being designed, the other spaces received a makeover with new paint, furniture and carpet. Campus Life plans to relocate all five spaces to new facilities in Cox Hall in fall 2023.

The perfect balance

To honor the aesthetic and vibe that students wanted, Emory encouraged interested undergraduate, graduate and professional students to work with the architectural firm of Perkins + Will to design the Asian Student Center and refresh the other four identity spaces. Students are also collaborating with the firm to design the new Cox Hall spaces.

“It’s rare that you get a space at a university that is designed specifically for you,” says Yarbrough. “The process has been really exciting to watch with students giving so much input.”

As a result, the Asian Student Center is awash in a color palette of lush green, blue and coral. The soft brush strokes of an abstract wall graphic evoke feelings of both calm and energy. Comfortable furniture throughout the space is conducive to collaborating, relaxing and socializing.

Although the identity spaces were created primarily for students representing the five groups, all are open to the entire Emory community to cultivate understanding and appreciation of the diverse cultures and backgrounds that are the Emory University community.

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