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New Asian American studies minor seeks to illuminate racial injustice

At the very top of the Fine Arts building, you can find Tamara Bhalla typing away on her laptop, preparing syllabi and lectures. In addition to her routine associate professor duties, Bhalla has also chosen to take on new responsibilities as the program director of UMBC’s new Asian American studies program.

As of right now, the program is simply a minor, requiring 18 credits which emphasize the definition of what can be considered American and how the Asian culture is integrated in our contemporary society. Bhalla and associate professor Theodore Gonzalves have tag-teamed the development of the minor. Together, the two specialize in South and Southeast Asian diasporic culture, relations and literature, in addition to their shared interest in Asian American studies.

The development of this minor started after the Spring of 2011, when a featured course in Asian American culture was offered through the American Studies program. “It didn’t have a GEP or culture credit; things that undergraduates typically look to fulfill. Despite this, we were still reaching our enrollment capacity. We were seeing people who were genuinely interested in this topic,” Bhalla said.

During the subsequent semesters, the same course reached its enrollment and wait-list maximums, supporting Bhalla’s claim that people are invested in these studies.

Receiving approval and accreditation from the Undergraduate Council at the tail end of the Fall 2016 semester, students can now look forward to minoring in Asian American Studies; something that Bhalla and her colleagues cannot wait to explore with their students. Indeed, Bhalla and many other members of the American Studies department argue that Asian American studies are more important now than ever.

“Like other ethnic studies here on campus, our program is not focused just on one aspect of culture, but also taking a political standpoint that focuses on racial inequality and social justice,” Bhalla said

Bhalla and her colleagues have noticed an antiquated bias against the Asian and Asian American cultures and Bhalla fears that history is repeating itself as we head into the Trump era.

“Asian Americans have this history that is frightfully echoing themselves, through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Japanese American Internment Camps during World War II and now the 90-day ban enacted by President Trump,” Bhalla said.

While this may be frightfully true for most, Bhalla and her fellow professors are fighting against this exclusionary acts by educating our campus on these different cultures and facilitating discussion. Bhalla is dedicated to not only her students, but also to her South Asian roots, as her framed portrait of Mahatma Gandhi hangs in the corner of her office.

“The largest country in South Asia is India. I was born there and my family is from there, so it is both professionally and personally very important to me,” Bhalla said.

Students can now look forward to minoring in Asian American Studies, and they are strongly encouraged to reach out to Tamara Bhalla, Ph.D., with any questions.