Purdue students push for Asian cultural center

By Eric Weddle
The Associated Press

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Time has arrived for an Asian cultural center at Purdue University.

That’s what a growing number of students are demanding on the West Lafayette campus as domestic and international Asians near a quarter of total enrollment, and Purdue boasts the second-largest international student population among U.S. public universities.

“In my opinion, if there is a population that needs it — they should provide it,” Victoria Loong, a Chinese-American junior and vice president of the Asian American Association, told the Journal & Courier. “Look at the co-rec, see how many people use it? They found a way to make that happen.

“To ignore it would be a very gutsy move.”

Loong and fellow student Tamara James Dizon created a steering committee to formulate a plan on how and why Purdue should join other Big Ten schools, such as Indiana University and University of Illinois, in building a center that would cater to the cultural and social need of Asian students.

The committee’s idea is for an Asian, Asian American Cultural Center that would be similar to the campus Black Culture Center, which houses a special collections library, a computer lab, student offices and meeting spaces, and has become a national touchstone for such centers.

Dizon, a Filipino-American, said the center would also act as an outreach to the entire community to teach about the complex and wide differences in Asian cultures.

“It would be a voice,” the junior said. “People want to learn but they don’t know where to go.”

But if it will happen, remains unknown.

So far Purdue’s administration has been quiet publicly but continues to meet with the steering committee and other campus groups advocating a center. Acting President Tim Sands is waiting to see the proposal before commenting, said Teri Lucie Thompson, vice president for marketing and media.

Asian enrollment on the West Lafayette campus surged by 79 percent in 2002 to a record 9,184 students this fall. Of that total,  1,951 domestic students identify  themselves as Asian and 7,233 international students are from Asia. The students — like the Americans, a diverse group from Sri Lanka, Japan, China, India, Pakistan and other countries — now make up 23 percent of the overall Purdue population.

Purdue has the second-largest international student population among U.S. public universities, according to the 2011 Open Door report by the Institute of International Education.

But that growth has led Loong and Dizon to be met with indifference from some students, who feel the increasing population of Asians means a center is not needed as they become such a visible campus community.

Melanie Castillo-Cullather, director of the Asian Culture Center at Indiana University, said if campuses are to be places that reflect the diverse landscape of the country, then it is essential to have a center.

Purdue has a Latino Cultural Center, Native American Educational and Cultural Center, and Black Cultural Center. This past summer the first director of Purdue’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Queer Center was hired.

“If college campuses want to be a place of learning, then we should not deprive our students this venue that provides an opportunity for a free exchange of ideas,” Castillo-Cullather said. “If college campuses truly care about their Asian and Asian American community, then it is important to have a place that they can call home and a place that advocates for their concerns.”

It took more than a decade of students’ organizing and lobbying on the Bloomington campus for a center to become a reality, she said. The center opened in 1998, a year after a campus protest during Martin Luther King Day included demands to create an Asian Culture Center.

Advocacy and education is needed as discrimination and stereotypes continue on campus, Dizon said, from Twitter accounts aimed at making fun of Purdue Asian students to a sense of acceptance by some that jokes about Asians are OK.

Yang Liu, a Purdue graduate student from China who knows the increasing enrollment numbers well, says the absence of a cultural center is strange. But he sees the eventual creation of a center as discussions continue.

“We are starting late, however, late better than never,” said Yang who is a student adviser for Purdue Chinese Students and Scholars Association. “The potential building can be the best place for us to get together to celebrate our own festival, know friends from the similar background, and what is more important, it can be the perfect window to display the Asian culture to everyone at Purdue and in the local community.”

Liu said campus life for international Asians would improve if they can better connect with others who share their language and cultural background. But Liu also sees the downside to creating a separate space for students to go.

“This arises another problem that the students tend to isolate themselves in their own group. They are reluctant to speak English, experience American culture or learn from the students from other countries,” he said.

Castillo-Cullather acknowledges that the benefits of a culture center at a university such as Purdue might not be obvious but says they are important.

“It is a testament that the university is committed to diversity in the truest sense. It shows that the campus cares. I can’t tell you how many families, both Asian and non-Asian, felt grateful to learn that there is a place for their children to call home, reaffirms their identity, and a place that connects them with others that share their interests,” she said. “Departments also see the cultural center as a major partner in their efforts to recruit and retain faculty members.” (end)

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