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Asian Studies No Minor Issue for Director

Education: At UCI, Ketu Katrak's proposal to elevate the program to a major is moving forward. Critics say it's long overdue.


IRVINE — She is a Bombay native who speaks four languages, has studied the literature of African, Caribbean and Asian women writers, taught at Howard and Yale universities and written for scholarly publications as varied as the Black American Literature Forum and the South Asia Bulletin.

Ketu H. Katrak possesses a diverse resume, one that landed her a job last fall as UC Irvine's director of Asian American studies.

Now, she has applied her scholarly skills toward changing what many consider a glaring embarrassment on campus.

If all goes as planned, UCI's executive committee today will approve Katrak's proposal to elevate the campus' 5-year-old program from a minor--its status since last spring when it became the last UC campus to establish one--to a major. The proposal then would go before the campus' representative assembly and the systemwide president's office for final approval, setting the stage for the first baccalaureate candidates to enter the program in the fall or winter quarter.

On a campus where more than half of the undergraduates are Asian American or Pacific Islander, the highest proportion of any of the nine University of California campuses, many say such a major is long overdue.

Three UC campuses offer one: Santa Barbara, UCLA and Berkeley, which pioneered the field 30 years ago at the height of '60s student activism. But its nonexistence at UCI for several years has been a hotly contested issue and the source of persistent protests that have included a student hunger strike.

"It's about time," said Audrena Cheung, a Chinese American who co-edits the Ricepaper, an alternative student magazine focusing on Asian American issues.

"I think the benefit of an Asian American studies major is to educate, not just remind, Asian Americans of what the culture has been and what the struggle has been," said Cheung, a senior economics major who would have double majored in Asian American studies had it been offered sooner. "It will actually help other people too who are not Asian American to understand Asian American culture."

Katrak said UCI's program will benefit from her broad knowledge of Asian ethnic groups, religions and languages.

"It's quite a lot to really take on in terms of satisfying everyone," she said, noting the large numbers of students of Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese descent on campus. "But I think with the right type of attitude we should be able to keep making progress."

The interdisciplinary program would include more than 15 professors teaching about 40 courses already offered in various departments but regrouped under the Asian American studies banner.

The offerings include the history department's "Chinatowns in American Society"; social science's "Japanese American History"; English's "Asian American Women's Literature"; and social ecology's "Cultural Ecology and Environmental Design." Students will be required to take three mandatory lower-division courses and 14 upper-division electives. The minor requires only six courses.

UCI's move reflects a nationwide movement in which universities have started or augmented such programs in response to the boom in Asian American enrollment that began in the early 1980s. At UCI, Asian American enrollment has increased 132% in the past decade, a reflection of state and national demographic trends.

Over the past 10 years, the number of Asian American studies programs has doubled to about 32, said Gary Okihiro, a Cornell University professor who has tracked the growth of the field.

"On most campuses nationally, Asian Americans are the largest or fastest growing minority group," Okihiro said. "These students are coming of age and are wondering about their own experience and culture and identity."

Cal State Fullerton, which started an Asian studies minor last year, plans to have a major in place within two or three years.

Asian studies programs are a prime way for colleges to "signify to Asian American students that they are visible and that they matter," said Evelyn Hu-Dehart, a University of Colorado researcher who has studied ethnic programs nationwide.

Such a statement is important at UCI, where tension has flared occasionally over the predominance of Asian Americans. In July, a student is scheduled to face trial on federal civil rights charges stemming from an e-mail message he sent last year to 60 Asian American students threatening to kill them if they didn't leave campus.

"There is still discrimination and racism toward Asian Americans," said Nicole Inouye, a Japanese American who is president of the Asian Pacific Student Assn., which has pressed hard for a strong Asian American studies program. "Just to have this academic resource is invaluable to the interests of the campus."

There has been no formal or vocal opposition to the proposed major, though some non-Asian students are lukewarm to the idea.

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