Being Asian and American at the University of Richmond

by Jenifer Yi

Jenifer Yi is a sophomore from Santa Clarita, California majoring in Biochemistry with a concentration in Neuroscience and a minor in Healthcare Studies. She has been involved with the Race & Racism Project since 2018 and hopes to diversify the conversation and inclusion of all students of color at the University of Richmond. Through her contributions to the project, she wants to push for campus-wide racial awareness. In the future, she hopes to pursue a career in medicine while continuing to advocate and raise awareness for healthcare access for minorities.

It took eighteen years before I stepped foot as far east as Richmond, Virginia – the farthest I’ve been out on the East Coast.  A little naïve but brimming with excitement for the unknown, I did not realize back then that I would struggle with my cultural identity and sense of belonging for the first time in my life. Growing up in Las Vegas, Nevada for fourteen years then moving to a decently-sized suburb forty minutes outside Los Angeles, California for my high school years, I never noticed or took mind to the fact that I grew up and associated primarily with other Asian Americans. I befriended anyone who wanted to befriend me, but I never felt the oppressive pressure to prove to my non-Asian peers that I too, was born in the United States, and identified as an American despite having parents that immigrated from South Korea.

Coming to Richmond without much knowledge about the cultural and social scene on campus, I thought I would diversify my circle and have friends of all backgrounds and cultures. But as my life continued in Richmond, I found myself, for the most part, surrounded by and connecting with other Asian Americans. Even though I felt the deepest feelings of companionship I had ever experienced in my life with these individuals, I could never shake the cloud of shame and embarrassment I felt when my friends openly, publicly displayed their “non-American” tastes in music, entertainment, and culture. I did not want my peers to generalize me as a part of the “Asian” group and judge me for hanging out and connecting with primarily Asian students. I was, and still am, deeply uncomfortable with who I am: a Korean American. I have changed the way I dress, the type of music I listen to, and the type of entertainment that I consume just to try — and fail — to feel like an included student. I do not yet understand if this is due to campus culture or thoughts and barriers that I impose upon myself, but I do know that it has changed me.

Looking at the Race & Racism Project website, I was disappointed by how difficult it was to track the historical footprints of Asian Americans on campus. My search for Asian students yielded a total of thirty two articles, and I was only able to find a single article under the subject “Asian American students.” Though there is a slight nuance between Asian and Asian Americans, I feel that many fail to distinguish between the two. The broad umbrella term “Asian” made me question whether Asian students were being generalized and overlooked as a single entity, regardless of differences in background, history, and culture. Did Asian students in the past have the same sentiments and insecurities that I feel? What has changed about our University that the institution can now proudly display the population of Asian students as a success story of diversity prevailing on a campus that used to be primarily white?

While touting diversity, admitting “Oriental” students since as far back as 1922, and 8% of the student body being comprised by “Asian” students as of 2019, Asians, and particularly Asian Americans, have not been a significant component in the story of minority populations at the University. While bits and pieces of history have been recorded, such as the story of Eva Wong, who was placed on probation after bringing a black guest to the Westhampton College Song Contest (showing interracial relations and the University of Richmond’s stance on different ethnicities at the time), the majority of the stories and experiences of Asians and Asian Americans have not been bothered to be told and remembered. The only glimpses of the past that we can see are boiled down to senior graduation photos, majors, and club involvement on campus. Due to the lack of recognition of the history, cultural diversity, contributions, and backgrounds of Asians, I feel that there is a bubble separating Asian international students, Asian Americans, and the general population at the University of Richmond. Without digging into the past and uncovering the personal experiences and emotions of Asian alumni through recorded oral history, there is a danger of ignorance, generalization, and continued neglect for Asian students on campus. I hope to look further into the roles that Asian students played throughout the University’s history.