Honoring Asian American legacies: APIA program prepares for centennial event of the first person of color at the College

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Art Matsu led the College’s football team as quarterback to victory against the College’s rival team Richmond and also ran for the track team and played baseball. COURTESY IMAGE / EARL GREGG SWEM LIBRARY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

Last year, the College of William and Mary celebrated significant milestones in its history, such as the 100th anniversary of female enrollment and the 50th anniversary of African-American students being admitted. To honor the 100th anniversary of football quarterback Art Matsu ’28 arriving on campus in 1924 — when he became the College’s first Asian-American student and more broadly its first student of color — various efforts are being made by departments across campus to plan a commemorative centennial year in 2024.

Alongside members of the College’s Asian and Pacific Islander community, faculty from the Asian and Pacific Islander American studies program, students within the Asian American Student Initiative and alumni have been involved in the planning process.

APIA Director Francis Tanglao Aguas is spearheading the initiative and strives for the commemorative year to highlight both past and current APIA members of the student body; he aims to give a voice to all minorities who have historically shaped the College.

Aguas has been working closely with alumni and students to ensure that Matsu along with several other significant students are having their legacies respected and showcased. 

“A person of color was here in 1924 and he was Asian American, so the question of the day is about what efforts are being made for this ground-breaking engine to be a part of the William and Mary story. … I believe there should be a university effort to celebrate this one hundredth year milestone similar to any other celebration.”

“Since being a professor in 2005, I have been working with students in researching the presence and contribution of those who were present as Asian American and Pacific Islanders here at William and Mary,” Aguas said. “A person of color was here in 1924 and he was Asian American, so the question of the day is about what efforts are being made for this ground-breaking engine to be a part of the William and Mary story. … I believe there should be a university effort to celebrate this one hundredth year milestone similar to any other celebration.”

AASI leader Jamelah Jacob ’21 is working closely with members within APIA program to craft portrayals of Asian-American students’ contributions and successes on campus. Jacob, along with other members of the group, feel passionate about raising awareness for important figures such at Matsu, as well as all current minority students. 

Jacob said she hopes further progress can be made following the APIA’s official establishment last May, when it became a registered major offered through the College’s undergraduate Arts and Sciences program. 

“We recently got the official major in May 2019 after years of pushing for it, and we’re one of the first, and I’d say one of the most successful, on the east coast to do it,” Jacobs said in an email. “Still, I think the school has a long way to go to address the APIA community better. I feel like a lot of the progress has been initiated by APIA students and faculty, so I hope to see more initiatives that are driven by the school in the future.”

Edward Hong ’09 was the first student at the College to graduate with a degree in Asian-American studies. Since then, the APIA program has been officially cemented as a full major and has graduated students each year.

As an alum with deep ties to APIA’s budding status at the College, Hong is helping Aguas plan the celebrations commemorating Matsu’s matriculation and hopes to aid Aguas in officially proposing the celebration to the administration. 

Hong said that the point of the 100th year celebration is to demonstrate that Asian-American history should be emphasized as American history is more generally, both at the College and throughout educational curricula. 

“Asian Americans are a thriving and growing population not only at William & Mary but in the United States as a whole,” Hong said in an email. “Because of this growth, it is all the more important to celebrate these stories, not just through the culture shows the AAPI students would have with their student organizations but also in the academic realm where the history of Asian Americans is placed with greater emphasis alongside American history in general. This is not something the college is overlooking solely but a widespread issue amongst American colleges as a whole.”

Hong played a key role in shaping APIA’s curriculum, and will continue to work with APIA in celebrating the legacy of Asian Americans throughout the College.

While the APIA program has been working hard to raise the voices of Asian students, some members of the community feel that the administration is not doing enough to help. The Asian American and Pacific Islander community at the College would like to see the prominent support of pushing for this celebration and creating awareness for Asian-American stories all over the campus.

Jacob spoke on how vital it is for every Asian student to feel support during their time here since there are only four years to do so.

“First of all, I think that the College still overlooks a lot of underrepresented students, but I can only speak for the Asian-American community in my answer,” Jacob said. “It’s important because it’s necessary that APIA students feel like they belong here — that they are not only here for four years but that their time here becomes part of history forever.”

“First of all, I think that the College still overlooks a lot of underrepresented students, but I can only speak for the Asian-American community in my answer,” Jacob said. “It’s important because it’s necessary that APIA students feel like they belong here — that they are not only here for four years but that their time here becomes part of history forever. It’s also important to highlight different perspectives, which is a reason why it’s important to highlight stories of Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders.”

Aguas looks forward to expanding APIA studies at the College. He is dedicated to looking into the history of the College and examine where minorities, specifically Asian and Pacific Islanders, have helped shape the College in its formative years.

He emphasized how past students’ stories can uplift and encourage all current students on campus, partially motivating his interest in establishing a formal commemoration of notable milestones in the College’s minority communities.

“I believe it’s crucial for William and Mary to research its own history with all students of color,” Aguas said. “Imagine the power of the story to the students of today if we were able to find out of other early students of color who were here, not just of those we know now, such as the first transgender students of LGBTQ+, Latin American students or first Muslim students, what were their lives like at William and Mary. So that the students of today can benefit from their experiences, while their experience now is not necessarily the first such experience. Because when these histories are mined then we don’t have to repeat them.”

Correction: Update of Jamelah Jacob’s pronoun from “he” to “she.” Updated on October 29, 2019.