Janelle Wong is traveling from one coast to another to take over as the new director of the Asian American studies program at this university, effective Aug. 15. The associate professor from the University of Southern California has an extensive background studying race, ethnicity and politics, both within the classroom and throughout the surrounding communities.
Filling the shoes of former AAST Director Larry Shinagawa, who resigned from the position in mid-March, Wong brings a diverse range of experience to the table. She earned her doctorate in political science from Yale University, has published a variety of scholarly articles as well as a book on immigration, and is no stranger to Asian American studies.
“I have been part of the AAST program at USC for the past 11 years, so I have some experience that I’m excited to bring with me,” Wong said. “But, I’m also excited to build something new on the East Coast.”
A strong record of scholarly research and publications, experience developing curriculum and AAST programs, and the ability to manage budgetary and personnel matters are all qualities that made Wong an attractive candidate for the position. But she feels that her hands-on teaching methods are what made her stand out most to the AAST department.
“I have experience doing a lot of mentorship with both graduate and undergraduate students,” she said. “This isn’t explicit in the job description, but I think it’s key because I can serve as an advocate for the students.”
The duties that Wong will be taking on range from funding and development to curriculum, making the position a tricky balancing act of administrative and teaching responsibilities. Undaunted, she approaches these challenges with confidence gained from past experiences with USC’s departments of political science, American studies and ethnicity.
“I’m able to wear a lot of different hats,” she said. “How you balance it is about communication: listening to different constituents and also coming up with a range of strategic plans—short term and long term.”
Asian Pacific Americans are the largest minority group on campus, representing nearly 15 percent of all students. AAST classes serve this substantial chunk of the student body by providing insight into the diverse APA cultures.
“I took an Asian American history class to get more familiar with my roots,” said Nicole Ng, a senior architecture major from a Chinese family. “It’s good to know who you are and where you came from, and the class taught me that.”
But Asian American studies are by no means confined to the AAST department, which has a 12-person faculty and about 60 students enrolled in its minor program. Rather, the department’s work involves connecting with the greater community in order to fully capitalize on the resources that the D.C. metropolitan area has to offer.
“The AAST department conducts a lot of outreach to the wider community,” said Robert Gaines, associate dean for undergraduate studies. “That means interacting with and facilitating student organizations on campus and building bridges with groups off campus.”
Wong finds that the AAST department’s community outreach is especially relevant due to the fact that D.C. has the fourth largest concentration of APAs in the nation. She plans to develop new proactive initiatives that fully take advantage of this by connecting students to local community-based organizations for projects in their AAST classes.
In addition to assuming the roles of teacher, administrator and researcher as part of her new position, Wong also faces a more personal transition. While she will have to leave behind much of what she has grown accustomed to at USC, such as her family and network of colleagues, there also seems to be a number of constants that will remain unchanged.
“I grew up on the West Coast and my parents live there,” Wong said. “But, on the other hand, I will be moving from one metropolitan area to another, from one major university to another and from one campus that has a large APA population to another.”