Our History

The Asian American Studies Program is an interdisciplinary program that focuses on the scholarship and experiences of Americans, Pacific Islanders, and immigrants to the United States from Asian and Asian American heritage groups. In the timeline below, learn how our program came into existence and key moments that have shaped the program to this day.  This timeline was created in 2023 as part of our Asian American Studies History Project by team members: Peggy Choy, Lisa Ho, Victor Jew, Lori Lopez, Jan Miyasaki, Jessica Montez, and Linda Park.


Nothing happens in a historical vacuum, certainly not the birth of an Asian American Studies Program at UW-Madison and especially not the legacy of Asian American community activism and student mobilization that enabled its dawning. The roots of our Asian American Studies Program can be traced to a number of grassroots eruptions and acts in the 1970s and 1980s that laid the groundwork for the rise of Asian American Studies here on campus.

  • In 1973, Asian American students at UW-Madison contacted the Chicago chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) to request help dealing with a university that seemed unresponsive and uninterested in Asian American students.
  • In 1974, Asian American students published Rice Paper, the first Asian American student publication in the Midwest. Its editors aimed to create a central clearinghouse for information and discussion targeted to Asian Americans attending universities and colleges in the Midwest.
  • In 1981, Asian American students organized a one-day symposium to advocate for Congressional redress of the Japanese American incarceration of 1942-1946. The event culminated with a talk given at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin by Min Yasui, long-time Japanese American civil rights activist and attorney. His daughter was a graduate student at UW-Madison and he said he treasured the chance to talk at the flagship university of the state known for its progressive legacy.

These events can be seen as the long seeding for what culminated as the activism of the 1980s and the institutionalization of the Asian American Studies Program in the 1990s. These events reflected a non-hierarchical grassroots impulse for Asian Americans to articulate and address their needs. In doing so, they helped to move UW-Madison forward as well.

Pacific and Asian Women’s Alliance (PAWA)

Founded by Peggy Choy, along with Wendy Ho, Jan Miyasaki, Mimi Kim, and Donna Chan, the Pacific and Asian Women’s Alliance prioritized political activism for Asian American and other women of color. Some of their early activities included protesting a nuclear reactor on campus, participating in Take Back the Night demonstrations, and hosting events that brought awareness about Asian Americans to the campus. One of their biggest events was a conference held April 2-4, 1987, called “Talking Story: Images of Asian American Women in Literature and Film.” The event showcased important Asian American women–including Maxine Hong Kingston, Loni Ding, Elaine Kim and Chris Choy–while also helping to create a national network in support of Asian American women.

Fiji Incident
In the May 2nd Lounge in Ingraham, the Fiji Incident is documented through news clippings.

The Fiji Incident

A number of incidents on campus in the 1980s contributed to the recognition that Asian American and other students of color were not being supported at UW-Madison. These issues came to a head on May 2, 1987 when the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity constructed and displayed a 15-foot cutout effigy of a Black man with a bone through his nose to greet visitors attending their annual “Fiji Island” party. Asian American, Chicano/Chicana, and Black students came together in an umbrella organization called the Minority Coalition, denouncing this racist display and the fraternity’s attempt to downplay its offense by claiming that the Fijian native caricature was “Filipino” and “not Black.” The Coalition also demanded accountability by the UW-Madison administration.

As a result of this coalitional activism, Acting Vice Chancellor Phillip Certain constituted a Steering Committee on Minority Affairs that was chaired by student member and co-president of the Wisconsin Black Student Union Charles Holley. Victor Jew, Jan Miyasaki, Wendy Ho, and Peggy Choy actively contributed to subcommittee recommendations, including a mandatory 6-credit ethnic studies course. The resulting 1987 “Holley Report” called for a 3-credit general education requirement in ethnic studies that was first adopted by the College of Letters and Science in 1988 and the entire university in 1994. The report also recommended the creation of an Asian American Studies Program and a Puerto Rican Studies Program, but neither of these recommendations were immediately acted upon. Without pause, the Pacific and Asian Women’s Alliance continued efforts to rally support for Asian American Studies. Student unity was ignited through the initiation of Asian Coalition, whose active leadership included Peter Chen, Lon Kurashige, and Victor Jew, and supported by the Asian American Student Union.

In 2018, Asian American Studies Director Cindy I-Fen Cheng opened the May 2nd Lounge in Ingraham 339 as a safe space for students, faculty, staff, and community members to gather and commemorate the activism of students of color who had rallied against racism.

Proposing Asian American Studies

In 1988, a proposal for the creation of an Asian American Studies Program was submitted to Chancellor Donna Shalala. The initial proposal was written by PAWA members Wendy Ho and Peggy Choy, and the final proposal—submitted under the name of Asian Coalition—was the result of an alliance of Asian American faculty, staff, students (including the Asian American Student Union) and the community. The proposal demanded that the university commit resources for the serious scholarly inquiry of Asian American experiences by establishing an Asian American Studies Program within the College of Letters and Sciences, and support the program’s development as a vital center for scholarly research and the teaching.

The proposal called for the development of the program in three phases:

  1. Build the foundation for the program in the 1989-1990 academic year as well as secure a director and a facility
  2. Expand the faculty and course curriculum and develop the certificate requirements
  3. From 1990-1991 through 1993-1994 academic years, establish financial support network for students in the program and develop the AASP degree program into a major

See the proposal here.

Founding director, Professor Amy Ling

Inaugural Director Amy Ling is Hired

The Asian American Studies Program conducted a nationwide search for a Director and Professor of Asian American Studies in spring 1991. The duties of the role included developing a curriculum in Asian American Studies, preparing and teaching new Asian American Studies courses, administering the program, and hiring additional staff. As a professor, the candidate would teach graduate and undergraduate courses, carry on a research program in Asian American issues and topics, and provide service to the department, university, state, and nation.

The Asian American Studies Advisory Committee hired Dr. Amy Ling as the program’s inaugural director. With a PhD from New York University in Comparative Literature, Dr. Ling was a well-respected and visible scholar who had published a monograph called Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry in the U.S. and a chapbook of poems and paintings called Chinamerican Reflections. She was hired as Associate Professor in a joint appointment with English and Asian American Studies, and began serving as Director of the Asian American Studies Program in 1991.

Amy Ling is remembered as an outstanding director, effective in innovating the program’s curricular offerings and generating a national reputation for the program. After a long battle with breast cancer, she died on August 21, 1999. The week of her death, she learned that she had been honored with a UW-Madison Outstanding Women of Color Award. Although we mourn the tragic loss of our founding director, her work as a national pioneer in Asian American Studies will never be forgotten.

Amy Ling’s campus legacy continues through the Asian American Studies Program’s annual Amy Ling Yellow Light Award given to students for their creative and intellectual work and their leadership. A wooden bench with a plaque in Dr. Ling’s memory is located on the Howard Temin Lakeshore path on campus. In 2005, Director Leslie Bow created the Amy Ling Legacy Fund to support community-building functions, lectures, undergraduate scholarships, symposia, and other scholarly activities.

Directors of the Asian American Studies Program:

  • Amy Ling (Fall 1991 – Spring 1993)
  • Michael Thornton (Fall 1993 – Spring 1994)
  • Amy Ling (Fall 1994 – Spring 1997)
  • Hemant Shah (Fall 1997 – Spring 2000)
  • Michael Thornton (Fall 2000 – Spring 2003)
  • Hemant Shah (Fall 2003 – Spring 2004)
  • Leslie Bow (Fall 2004 – Spring 2008)
  • Lynet Uttal (Fall 2008 – Spring 2013)
  • Timothy Yu (Fall 2013 – Spring 2017)
  • Leslie Bow (Fall 2017)
  • Cindy Cheng (Spring 2018 – Fall 2020)
  • Lori Lopez (Spring 2021 – present)

Growing the Asian American Studies Program

Victor Jew
Victor Jew was hired to expand the Asian American Studies curriculum.

Amid reports in the early 1990s that the university had made little progress enrolling minority students and retaining minority faculty, a group called Students for the Expansion of Asian American Studies formed in 1996. Led by graduate students Kevin Kumashiro and Joy Lei, the group made several recommendations. These included the active recruitment and retention of Asian American Studies faculty and scholars, student recruitment, increasing the diversity of courses offered through the Asian American Studies Program, incorporating Asian American Studies perspectives into existing courses, and offering a certificate in Asian American Studies to undergraduate and graduate students.  The efforts of the Students for Expansion of Asian American Studies resulted in the approval of a joint search with Sociology to fill a faculty position, as well as a visiting professor position that was filled by Victor Jew for the spring semester of 1996-1997. The following spring, Imogene Lim was hired as a visiting professor.

Kevin Kumashiro, Joy Lei, and Sharon Lee also formed a student organization called the Association of Asian American Graduate Students (AAAGS). Their original activities included pursuing the goals of the Proposal for the Expansion of Asian American Studies, but they also worked more generally to address the concerns of Asian American Studies graduate students, build coalitions across campus, and program educational events and social activities. In 2005, Linda Park led a revitalized version of AAAGS that included mentoring for Asian American undergraduate students. AAAGS continues today as an informal group for Asian American graduate students to socialize and support one another.

Director Hemant Shah and Janet Tom stand outside the program’s Ingraham offices in 1998.

Creating an Asian American Studies Certificate

In March 1997, a proposal to establish the Certificate in Asian American Studies was submitted, and was approved later that December by the University Academic Planning Council. December 1998 graduates and thereafter would be eligible for a Certificate in Asian American Studies. The certificate program was open to any UW-Madison undergraduate student who had an interest in Asian American Studies and was in good academic standing at the university. The first recipient of the Certificate of Asian American Studies was Amy Schindler, who graduated in December 1998.

The Requirements:

To earn a Certificate in Asian American Studies, a student must earn a minimum GPA of 2.275 in 15 credits of course work.  There is no language requirement for the certificate.

3 credits of Foundation

Asian American Studies 101 – Fall and Spring

9 credits of Core Courses – Devoted exclusively to Asian American Issues

Asian Am 240 Topics in Asian American Studies – Social Science
Asian Am 260 Topics in Asian American Studies – Humanities
Asian American History (History)
Asian/Asian American Dance (Dance)
Creative Writing Workshop (English)
Crossing Borders with Asian Performance and Diaspora (Dance)
Asian Am 270 Survey of Asian American Literature – (English)
Asian Am 342 Asian American Personality and Mental Health (Psychology)
Asian Am 470 Asian Americans in U.S. Schools – (Education Policy Studies)
Asian Am 540 Topics in Asian American Studies – Social Science
Asian Am 560 Topics in Asian American Studies – Humanities
Asian Am 596 Asian American Women Writers – (English) Spring
Asian Am 699 Independent Study

3 credits of Comparative Courses – including other ethnic or Asian American Studies courses

Asian Am 220 Survey of Asian American Literature – (English)
Asian Am 368 Asian American Personality and Mental Health (Psychology)
Asian Am 443 Asian Americans in U.S. Schools – (Education Policy Studies)
Asian Am 562 Topics in Asian American Studies – Social Science
Asian Am 673 Topics in Asian American Studies – Humanities
Also eligible is any regularly offered course from Afro-American Studies, American Indian Studies Chicano Studies, or any regularly offered course in East Asian Studies, Southeast Asian Studies, or South Asian Studies, which may count toward the fulfillment of the comparative requirement with the Director’s approval

Faculty Hiring

Starting in the early 2000s, the Asian American Studies Program began to be augmented with the first budgeted hires since the hiring of Dr. Amy Ling in 1991. Assistant Professor Rhacel Parreñas was hired in 2000 in a joint appointment with Asian American Studies and Women’s Studies. In 2003, Associate Professor Leslie Bow, Assistant Professor Victor Bascara, and Assistant Professor Grace Hong were all hired with joint appointments in English and Asian American Studies. Together these hires created a new critical mass of faculty in Asian American Studies that significantly strengthened program offerings.

In November 2003, Director Hemant Shah organized a one-day retreat to discuss strategic planning for the program. They established a number of 5-year goals, including that the Program should be nationally recognized for its (1) transformative scholarship, (2) cohesive curriculum, (3) strong community connections and partnerships, (4) effective organizational structure, and (5) distinct Midwest historical and cultural focus.  They also decided to focus on three issues that required immediate attention: restructuring program governance to reflect a growing faculty size; refashioning the curriculum to reflect changing faculty strengths and student needs; and revitalizing outreach efforts to strengthen links between the Program and Madison’s Asian American community.

Hmong American Studies

In 2007, Hmong American students and community members came together with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies and the Asian American Studies Program to create a joint proposal for a Hmong Studies Initiative. The initiative was partially in response to racial tensions that had arisen in recent years over Hmong inclusion, representation, and misrecognition. For instance, in 2004 a Hmong hunter named Chai Vang had killed six other hunters in a violent confrontation, which exacerbated anti-Hmong racism. In 2007 there was also an incident at UW-Madison where a professor at the Law School had made anti-Hmong comments in class, and Hmong students organized to demand an apology.

As a result of these efforts, a permanent Hmong language instructor was hired to teach three levels of Hmong during the academic year. In 2006-2007, Mai Zong Vue was hired to teach “Hmong American Families,” and “Hmong American Studies,” and Leena Her was hired in a Visiting Professor position to teach courses on the Hmong American experience. In 2008-2009, the Asian American Studies Program sponsored a speaker series called “Critical Perspectives on Hmong Experience and Scholarship.”

In 2013, Yang Sao Xiong was hired as the first Hmong American Studies professor at UW-Madison, and in the entire country. Dr. Xiong earned a PhD in Sociology from the University of California Los Angeles, where he studied political participation among Asian Americans. He was hired as an Anna Julia Cooper Postdoctoral Fellow in 2013, and his joint appointment as Assistant Professor of Social Work and Asian American Studies began in 2014.

Michelle Navarro, Riley Tsang, and Alondra Avitia are among the UW–Madison students whose hard work and passion led to the creation of two new cultural center startup spaces at the Red Gym.

APIDA Student Center

In 2017, undergraduate students and Multicultural Student Center (MSC) interns Riley Tsang and Shannon Thao started organizing meetings with MSC Director Gabe Javier as well as interested students, faculty, and staff to talk about the formation of an Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Cultural Center. After seeing the Black Cultural Center re-open in the Red Gym in 2017, it seemed like the right time to ask for an APIDA-specific space to address mental health needs of a growing population of APIDA students on campus.

The group met for a year to conduct research and align with stakeholders, and then presented a proposal for an APIDA Cultural Center to Dean of Students Lori Berquam in March 2018. Although the proposal was initially denied due to lack of funding and competing demands from other students of color seeking cultural centers, APIDA student organizers regrouped by aligning with Latinx, Indigenous, and African American student activists to create the Cross Cultural Coalition. Together they secured approval for an APIDA Cultural Center start-up space on the North Mezzanine of the Multicultural Student Center, alongside the creation of a Latinx Cultural Center start-up space.

In fall 2018, the APIDA Cultural Center Startup Space opened. Riley Tsang continued as an intern for the Center, and Tevelung Lee was hired as the inaugural Coordinator. Lee coordinated regular programming, social justice education, and community advocacy events with assistance from Tsang, who also chaired the APIDA Heritage Month planning committee. UW-Madison has a long history of celebrating Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage Month since its origins in the 1990s, but different campus entities had coordinated it — including the Asian American Student Union, the Pathways Asian American Campus and Community Liaison Office, and the Asian American Studies Program. Starting in 2018, the planning of APIDA Heritage Month officially moved to the APIDA Cultural Center.

In spring 2019, the APIDA Cultural Center Advisory Board decided to change the name of the center to the APIDA Student Center. The name change reflected histories of scholarship fighting for the assertion of APIDA as a political identity centered on experiences of institutionalized racism, and denying the existence of a common culture. The name APIDA Student Center signified a challenge to the assumption that cultural unity is part of the Center’s mission and instead foregrounded a focus on the specific needs of the growing APIDA student body on campus. The APIDA Student Center continues to grow and thrive from its start-up space in the North Mezzanine.

Certificate student and activist Ariana Thao ’20 played a key role in advocating for the HMoob American Studies emphasis.

HMoob American Studies Emphasis

In 2015, students formed the Hmong American Studies Committee with the goal of building bridges between the campus Hmong community and the Hmong community at large. The group’s founding members Kia Vang, Myxee Thao, Pa Kou Xiong, Pang Lee and Lena Lee recognized there were too few courses that focused on Hmong Americans, and wanted a space for Hmong American students to talk about their experiences. They petitioned to implement a Hmong American Studies Program and Certificate. In 2018, students from the Hmong American Studies Committee partnered with researchers at the Center for College-Workforce Transitions (CCWT) to examine the sociocultural and institutional factors influencing Hmong American college experiences at UW-Madison.

At this time, the group started using the spelling “HMoob” instead of “Hmong” to embrace inclusion of both White Hmoob and Mong Green/Leng dialects. This spelling rejects the Americanization of this ethnic group name, demands respect for their mother tongue, allowing them to reclaim and embrace their identity, history, and heritage.

In response to student organizing and activism, the Asian American Studies Program created and approved a HMoob American Studies Emphasis in 2019. To earn the emphasis, Asian American Studies Certificate students take 6 courses from the curriculum that are designated as HMoob American Studies courses. The track promotes a more in-depth examination of HMoob American history and culture, and highlights the significance of HMoob communities in the state of Wisconsin and the Midwest more broadly.

Asian American Studies History Project

Starting in 2021, Director Lori Lopez initiated the creation of an Asian American Studies History Project to examine the program’s history.  Team members Peggy Choy, Lisa Ho, Victor Jew, Lori Lopez, Jan Miyasaki, Jessica Montez, and Linda Park compiled and organized archival materials, connected with former directors, and constructed a detailed timeline of the program’s origins and evolution over time.  Dr. Lopez conducted 10 oral history interviews with Asian American Studies faculty, staff, and students who played foundational roles in fostering institutional change to increase support for Asian Americans on campus.

The Project presented its findings in April 2023 with a series of events, including:

  • A month-long exhibit called 35 Years of Asian American Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison at the Class of 1973 Gallery on the 2nd floor of the Red Gym. The exhibit featured 14 panels detailing the evolution of Asian American Studies on campus.  The exhibit was held in collaboration with the 2023 APIDA Heritage Month Art Show, which featured student works that reflected the theme of Voices Intertwined: Stories That Shape Us.
  • A panel discussion on April 19, 2023 featuring comments from former directors Leslie Bow, Cindy I-Fen Cheng, Timothy Yu, and Lori Kido Lopez.  Speakers reflected on what Asian American Studies has meant to them, and their own experiences leading the program.
  • Publication of Bridges 2.0, a newsletter created by Lisa Ho and Jessica Montez. This newsletter is a revival of our program’s original newsletter Bridges, which was published annually from 1993-2007.
  • Launch of our newly redesigned program website, which features a page called “Our History” that include a detailed timeline of the program, a page called “Our Stories” that includes videos and transcripts from 10 oral histories, and a page called “Program Archive” that shares digital versions of important documents from our program’s archival materials.