Sixteen new full-time faculty joined the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) for the 2023-24 academic year. Two of the faculty members are also new department chairs in the college. Gregg Barron, assistant teaching professor of music industry in…
Helping Students Celebrate Identity During Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month
Each April, the Syracuse University community comes together to celebrate and honor our Asian American and Pacific Islander students, faculty and staff during Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month.
The monthlong festivities were researched and planned out by the AAPI Heritage Month Planning Committee, with efforts led by Multicultural Affairs in collaboration with student organizations and departments across campus.
This year’s theme is “Regrounding: Celebrating Our Identity,” centering on sharing and celebrating the pride, strength and joy demonstrated by our on-campus AAPI community.
It’s an important theme, especially following the challenges of the last two years, including the COVID-19 pandemic and a troubling rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and bias incidents.
One of the highlights of AAPI Heritage Month was the April 7 Commemorative Lecture with Michelle Zauner, a talented and decorated singer and guitarist who creates indie pop under the name Japanese Breakfast.
Merci Sugai G’22, a graduate student in the School of Education and graduate assistant in student activities, served as AAPI Planning Committee co-chair.
Hyejun Yoo ’22, an advertising major in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and information management and technology major in the School of Information Studies, moderated the commemorative lecture Q&A with Zauner.
We recently caught up with Sugai and Yoo to discuss planning this year’s AAPI Heritage Month celebrations, why they wanted to get involved and how their time at Syracuse University helped them discover more about their identities.
Why did you want to get involved in planning this year’s AAPI Heritage Month celebrations?
Hyejun Yoo: I’ve always felt that when I was younger, I kind of had to put my Korean or Asian heritage on a back burner because it wasn’t really something I could really talk about to my peers or anyone else around me. Being able to be proud of my identity and heritage and be part of something that celebrates my identity and others’ identities was something I wanted to explore and help with.
What were the goals of this year’s celebrations?
Merci Sugai: We wanted it to be a celebration for students, staff and faculty within the AAPI community here at Syracuse. Last year’s AAPI Month celebration happened in the middle of a giant spike in hate crimes against Asian-Americans. And this year, while that hasn’t necessarily gone away, I think we’re moving toward reclaiming our sense of identity, which is where this year’s theme came from. How can we empower one another through difficult times as we are focused on celebrating how far we’ve come as a community while mourning those we’ve lost at the same time. And at the same time, we want to have some serious in-depth conversations about anti-Asian bias in this country. AAPI Heritage Month highlights the different facets of the Asian-American experience at SU and how far we have come as well.
Before Hyejun moderated the commemorative lecture with Michelle Zauner, you had to write an essay detailing why you wanted to lead the conversation. Tell us about your essay.
Hyejun Yoo: Music is a big part of my life. Not necessarily like playing or anything, but I’ve always grown up listening to music. I remember when I first heard about Michelle Zauner and Japanese Breakfast. I was really inspired because here was someone that also has Korean heritage and a Korean background like me, and she isn’t afraid to just be herself and make candid music about her experiences. Being able to be vulnerable with such a public audience was inspiring and a confidence boost for a lot of people. I talked about that and how she’s very inspiring to me. And her book, “Crying in H Mart,” was an amazing read that made me want to explore more about her experiences. She’s just an inspiration!
What role has your identity played in your life, and how has that connection to your identity changed since you came to Syracuse?
Merci Sugai: I’m half Japanese, half Italian. Identity is something that I’ve kind of come to terms with through young adulthood, specifically as an undergraduate. Here at Syracuse, I’ve been really lucky to discover and find the ways that my identity impacts my work with students. I’m really lucky that I get to work with so many students on a day-to-day basis, and a lot of them happen to be within that AAPI community.
SU has showed me how I can use my identity to relate to students and empower students to find their identity and where they fit in on a predominantly white campus. As a graduate student, I’m also learning how to claim my identity to help others, which I think is a really important conversation to have for a lot of graduate students. I’m very thankful that I’m in this place now, because it further emphasized my identity development as an Asian woman.
Hyejun Yoo: I’m Korean-American, and in high school I didn’t really talk much about my Korean heritage. But then toward the end of high school I started getting more into Korean culture, like art forms and music, and I also wanted to try more of the food, even though I had grown up on it. I wanted to embrace my culture more as I grew up because I think I was able to mature into appreciating it more instead of tucking it away in the background.
So when I got to college, I wanted to continue exploring my identity and meeting like-minded people. I started cooking more and trying more food, and since food is such a big part of our culture, it’s kind of what bridges me and my family together along with my extended family. Also just appreciating the Korean language, too. I remind myself to speak Korean with my parents more, as it lets me find my roots back to my Korean heritage.
In your work as a graduate assistant in student activities, what’s the best piece of advice you can give to students who want to discover their identity and find out who they are?
Merci Sugai: The biggest piece of advice I try to give and will always give is to never stop talking about your identity. I’m fortunate enough to work with student organizations that are centered around Asian-American and Pacific Islander identities on campus, and I think a lot of times they feel discouraged that they don’t feel supported by the University, or they don’t want to pilot a new initiative, again, because they don’t think they’ll have that campus or community support.
But once we stop having that conversation about our identities and wanting to celebrate those, the momentum goes away. So I always try to encourage students to continue advocating for themselves and for others who will keep advocating for the community. Also, know when to ask for help. There’s a lot of people here on campus that identify similarly as you and identify with the AAPI community. Use your voice to make a difference for you, but also for future generations of AAPI students who are going to come to SU.
Across the country, AAPI Heritage Month is celebrated in May, but since most University community members are gone during May, the planning committee opts to hold events on campus in April. AAPI Heritage Month runs through April 30, including Saturday’s badminton tournament. For more information, visit the AAPI Heritage Month website.
Visit the Multicultural Affairs website for ways to get more involved on campus.
PODCAST: Check out the full conversation with Sugai and Yoo on ’Cuse Conversations.