Welcome to CLAS Connections, a minicast that spends a heartfelt five minutes with people from UConn’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. In each case, their special connection has had a profound and lasting impact on their lives.
Today, we hear from Jason Chang, director of the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute and professor of history, and Karen Lau, an economics and history undergraduate student. Jason and Karen were instrumental in passing a state statute requiring the teaching of Asian American and Pacific Islander studies in Connecticut K-12 curricula. Here they discuss how their connection has helped each of them learn more about themselves.
Karen: Do you remember that first day of school two years ago? And what that first class was like?
Jason: Oh yeah. I absolutely remember that. I came to class early, and I was a little nervous that day. I was getting set up, and you were also in the classroom early. I introduced myself, and I think you said, “No, I know who you are.”
Jason: And you said, “I’ve done my research.” And I was like, Oh my gosh. Okay, great. Well welcome! And then we immediately started talking about Asian American politics in Boston and in other parts of Connecticut. And I was so surprised and so excited because it was that first moment where I was like, I’m gonna learn a lot from Karen.
Karen: Thanks for saying that, instead of saying you were really freaked out.
Karen: Or disturbed! I definitely was trying too hard my freshman year. I felt like your enthusiasm was so infectious that I could see everyone around me pay more attention and feel more excited about learning Asian American history. I just remember leaving that first class feeling so high, feeling like what I would learn in this class would really be limitless, and I could do anything that I wanted with Asian American history. And then as the weeks went on, you were drawing these maps from memory on the whiteboard with no frame of reference. I was just like, this guy can teach, he can draw, he has great shoe game. What can’t he do? And I remember reflecting on how I felt in high school when I had only two Asian American teachers in the whole school. I remember how difficult it was for me as an Asian American student when the pandemic started, and going to school after hate crimes had happened, and feeling so completely alone and invisible. I remember thinking on that first day that I would never feel that again. At least not in your classroom.
Jason: Oh gosh, Karen, thank you for saying that. That was also my experience in school too. When we were organizing, we were putting together, a plan for what would our, our wildest dreams be like to change education, and to make Asian American studies a part of every student’s experience in the state … that was such a big dream. And I didn’t think we were actually going to get the law passed, but we did. We passed two laws. The statute says that we have to teach Asian American and Pacific Islander contributions to the state. How many people know what those contributions are? Right? We have to find out what they are and share those. And that’s what you’re doing. No one asked you. You came up with that idea and I’m just so thankful and grateful for the energy and thoughtfulness that you put into that.
Karen: One of the highlights for me was going to the bill signing at the Capitol in June of 2022, and seeing the governor sign a bill that would make Connecticut the first state to mandate Boards of Education to provide Asian American studies for K through 8, and allocate funding towards it. And feeling like this is a moment where we are writing history, and we’re teaching it, and we just have to make sure that the past is always with us and that we bring it into the future. When I was younger, I was definitely extremely introverted, and where I really learned how to communicate better and verbalize my words was through journalism. I think where I really shine is when I can sit down with someone like we are doing now and hear about their life, their struggles, their regrets, their ideas on political issues. They get me fired up.
Jason: I think about myself when I was your age, and I definitely did not have your courage. The presentation that you gave [at the Holster Scholars Symposium] … I saw you up there on stage, and you had such a commanding presence. You were describing your research, and you were talking about the impact of Asian American history on students’ lives. You just owned it so hard. And I was like, I need this at the education hearing, at the legislature. I was so impressed and so proud of you for, taking that chance and doing something that was new for you.
Karen: When I was younger and when I was in a lot of mostly white environments, I felt a bit ashamed that my parents weren’t like other kids’ parents, that they weren’t college educated, they didn’t have white collar jobs. And I felt like a bit less than because of that. But taking Asian American History for the first time made me realize all of the sacrifices that my family has made throughout the generations so that I could be the first one in my family to graduate college, to go on to law school, and maybe help my parents retire with a bit more comfort than they would have otherwise. I think that has taught me to have more pride in where I come from, and to not feel ashamed that my parents do work at a casino, that they work there for more than 20 years, but that’s the way that they provide for me, and that’s the way that they’ve helped me be able to learn. And buy any book that I wanted when I was younger, buy random TI calculators that I probably didn’t need, and go to all my track meets and cross country meets even when I finish close to last. And that’s made me appreciate my parents more. And when I’m feeling homesick and when I’m feeling like I miss my family, having you on campus is a lot of comfort.
Jason: Oh, Karen. I love learning about your story. Thank you so much for sharing.
Karen: Thank you for listening.