A group of Thai students sitting outside on the grass at Cornell University in the 1960s.

Project Chronicles Experiences of Alums of Asian Descent

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By Lindsay Lennon

Cornell’s Asian American Studies Program (AASP) has launched an oral history project—and it’s seeking alumni who are willing to share their stories. The goal: to explore not just the program’s genesis in the 1980s, but the on-campus experiences of students of Asian descent from the mid-20th century onward.

Led by history professor Derek Chang and supported through crowdfunding, the project kicked off in summer 2022—in conjunction with the 35th anniversary of the AASP, the oldest program of its kind in the Ivy League.

A group of Asian American Cornell alumni sitting around a table sharing stories.
Alumni from the ’70s and ’80s shared their stories at Reunion ’23. (Provided)

An oral history session was held at Reunion that year for the classes of the 1970s and 1980s, and again at Reunion ’23.

“We’re trying to capture the experiences of Asian and Asian American alumni, and the role they’ve played in the history of the University,” says Christine Bacareza Balance, an associate professor of performing and media arts and the AASP’s director.

“But we’re also tracking the history of the Asian American Studies Program—particularly, the things Asian American students were doing on campus prior to its founding.”

Today, according to University statistics, Asian Americans make up about 20% of the student body. Additionally, the international students who comprise roughly one-quarter of enrollment include many from Asian countries.

But as Chang notes, while students of Asian descent are now well represented demographically on the Hill, that wasn’t the case decades ago—and in mid-20th century America, many Asian Americans felt invisible on campus as a result.

Two Chinese students at Cornell University in 1940.
Students from Chinese diplomatic families in 1940. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

“The reality for those students was very different than for students now,” says Chang. “We’re interested in hearing about their lives, because there’s a dearth of scholarship and information around those experiences.”

Marvin Chang, MBA ’98 (no relation to Derek Chang), learned about the oral history project through the Cornell Asian Alumni Association.

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Asian American alumni and faculty at Cornell University have a conversation at a table.
Derek Chang (left) and Marvin Chang (center) chat at the Reunion ’23 event. (Provided)

Channeling his “inner desire to be a social historian,” he says, he’s been conducting interviews with fellow alumni.

He has been particularly inspired by stories of advocacy and activism that often challenge the suffocating stereotypes around being a “model minority.”

“It’s critical that we surface these stories, so that there’s a better understanding and we can go deeper than these archetypes,” Marvin Chang notes. “What’s the trajectory of the Asian American student experience at Cornell?”

Such efforts, he says, have spurred positive changes—such as the establishment of campus programs and resources, student groups, and courses of study—that are benefitting new generations of students. (Those younger Cornellians include his son, current ILR major Dashiell Chang ’24.)

A black-and-white group photo of a Chinese student club at Cornell in the 1930s
The Cornell Chinese Students' Club in 1937. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Others who have participated in the oral history project include John Kuo ’85, an Arts & Sciences alum and life member of the University Council who shared memories of his student activism.

“I felt many times that I was isolated and alone,” he recalls. “The fact that today, there are these programs—and that students can find kinship, camaraderie, and a safe space to be who they are—is fabulous.”

The program is seeking Asian and Asian American alumni—particularly those from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s—to contribute their memories. Want to share your story? Contact Derek Chang.

Top: Thai students in front of Willard Straight Hall in 1962. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Published August 4, 2023


  1. Clifford Lau, Class of 1980

    Growing up in Waipahu, a plantation town, I had only a few classmates in school who were Chinese. In Hawaii, I was exposed to many other cultures such as Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Filipino, Hawaiian, and Samoan. I grew up with a blend of Japanese culture from my mom and Chinese culture from my dad. In this setting only English was spoken. I didn’t have the opportunity to learn my parents native language. I was surprised to meet so many Chinese students at Cornell. I found it refreshing to meet so many Chinese students from New York City who come from more traditional Chinese families where they still speak the Chinese language The strong Chinese student club offered many activities which gave us a nice break from studies and learn more about Chinese culture.

  2. Jenifer Ong-Meyers, Class of 1986

    Greetings, and thank you for this article, and thanks to Dr Chang for the important and informative project. I recall in the mid-’80s of being nervous and signing a petition of some sort. I had feared some of us Asian Americans might be in trouble, because there was news and controversy that Asians were overrepresented at CU. I believe at the time only 4% of the US was Asian American and CU had 12% or more – apologies I may not have the stats correct all these years later. Anyway, the Cornell Malaysian Assoc was a group I joined which welcomed me, and I remain good friends with at least one member. Thanks again.

  3. Janelle Teng, Class of 2011

    I’m so excited for this project! Being a young person on campus during my undergrad years, I felt like I was part of a surge of Asian American activism. Only by learning more about our history did I realize I was actually a part of a long, long tradition of on-campus advocacy. There are so many lessons to be gleaned from this project, not just for Asian American students and alumni but for all Cornellians looking to make a change. I’m looking forward to reading more stories, especially about how AASP came to be a program at Cornell in the ’80s so that I could minor in it in the ’00s/’10s. I feel indebted to the generations who came before me that opened those doors for me. We can’t pay it back, so we will pay it forward. Thank you to all the alum who are championing & participating in this project for sharing your stories with all of us!

  4. Robert L Fabbricatore, Class of 1966

    My parents were Cornell students between 1929 and 1934. My father, Fortunato (changed to Francis) Fabbricatore was from Brooklyn and my mother Catherine Stockwell was from Oneida. One year, my father lived in the Cosmopolitan Club one with students from all over the world. A lifetime friend wound up to be Tien Liu who got a PhD in chemistry. Dr Liu was the inventor of Play Doh. However, he always said he most proud of receiving a letter from the Chairman of the Chemistry Department demanding an explanation on his exorbitant use of alcohol for his experiments. This was during Prohibition and Tien was in charge of bathtub gin. He took his vacations in Ithaca around Homecoming and stayed at our house. Another student I recall my parents talking about was a Prince of Siam. Phonetically, his name was Chock Ra Tung Tung-Yai. His field of expertise was entomology. My father told me not to get too excited because the King had a lot of Princes. My mother loved “The King and I.”

  5. Earl Kim, Class of 1984

    I love that someone is capturing the variety of expereinces of Asian students at Cornell.

    Like Clifford Lau, I was born and raised in Hawai’i, but through something of a fluke, I ended up being 100% Korean as a 4th generation Hawai’i kid (most Hawai’i kids are “poi” by the time the 4th generation rolls around).

    My relationships at Cornell did not spring from the Asian or Hawai’i clubs but other activities. NROTC was my ticket to Cornell as my family couldn’t afford it otherwise, and I wrestled for a few years. What little spare time I had, I spent exploring my spirituality and joined a Christian fellowship group on campus. These activites left me with fond memories of the Hill and gratitude for the opportunities to travel that sports and NROTC provided. I had no transportation during my 4 years at Cornell and escaped Ithaca only a couple times for a “vacation” to NYC and VA with my roommate.

    Unilke other Cornellians who would head home over breaks, I could not, so Ithaca became my home away from home. A family friend, Prof. Stu “Brownie” Brown, would have me over during holidays–including Winter Breaks when I would stay at Pi Beta Phi (wrestlers and Marines) or my apartment on Stewart Ave. Though some might be saddened at not being able to return home, it was actually helpful to have the time to reflect and to grow.

    Well after I graduated, my paternal grandfather’s book would be translated from Hanja and published by Seoul National University. My grandfather died from throat cancer when I was 6, so I had never heard his stories until then. I learned not only of his role in the Korean Independence Movement but of his year spent at Cornell back in the early 1900s. He would leave due to finances but would graduate from The Ohio State University.

  6. Jonathan Poe, Class of 1982

    First, thanks Cliff, Jenifer, John, Janelle, Robert and Earl for your narratives. I hope more of you will contribute to Prof. Derek’s Project. When one of us learns, we all gain knowledge.

    Stories create tools for future generations to break glass ceilings. Here’s a success story. In 1978 Frank Rhodes tasked Dr. Ron Simmons (and later Dr. Judy Jackson) to expand COSEP student leadership. Surprisingly, Rhodes asked: are there more [minority] leaders like you? I answered: of course, but we need support systems to recognize stereotyping, glass walls and politics. High schoolers had to learn best practices to succeed in a collegiate system. Thus with Dr. Simmons and Dean Everhart’s help, 12 of us created the Peer Counseling Program – students advising students on thriving at Cornell, bending the rules, overcoming bias, trail-marking for others to build upon, starting with the College of Engineering, expanding to international students the next year and then across the entire student body two years later. I even got paid to hire, train and audit student counselors. Today, COSEP lessons learned and knowledge have expanded to Agwe:kon, Carol Tatkon Center, OADI, A3C, FGLI, etc. 45 years later, the Peer Counseling System still flourishes in the College of Engineering and Office of Campus Life. Keep moving forward.

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