Even though she was a toddler at the time, Kannica Lor remembers the scene vividly: She was playing with her brother at a local park, and her Cambodian grandmother, who didn’t speak English, suddenly became the target of a white woman who was screaming at her to “speak English!” That memory sticks with her to this day.
Nowadays, Lor, a third-year Asian American Studies major at Cal State Long Beach, worries about her parents.
“My worries are for them when they go out shopping,” said Lor, a Cambodian American who grew up in Long Beach. “I would not want them to go out on their own because I know there was a lot of hate and hateful action taken toward elders in our community.”
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, anti-Asian hate speech and violence have continued to rise. According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 339% last year, compared to the year before. From the city streets to the highest office in the country, Asians have been blamed for starting the pandemic and have been attacked for supposedly spreading the virus.
There are also socioeconomic and mental health issues that young Asian Americans have encountered, without a lot of resources or places to turn.
Project Resilience, a new program kicking off this spring at CSULB, aims to address wellness and mental health issues among Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students, as well as provide academic, financial and career support. The four-part program also plans to provide peer mentors for students and workshops for faculty at The Beach, specifically addressing AAPI issues.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders comprise about 20.8% of the Cal State Long Beach student body, according to campus data from spring 2022. The Beach has been recognized nationally as an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution (AANAPISI), one of 14 in the CSU system. That designation allows CSULB to compete for federal and private grants aimed at bolstering efforts to assist underserved communities and students.
Dr. Barbara Kim, professor and chair of the Asian and Asian American Studies Department, and Associate Professor Varisa Patraporn of the Department of Sociology, are spearheading the project. The initiative was made possible by a five-year, $1.46 million AANAPISI grant provided by the U.S. Department of Education, and builds upon efforts that had been underway for several years on campus.
AAPI “students were definitely affected by the pandemic,” Patraporn said. “It was challenging to take classes (online). It feels like their social skills are deteriorating. They haven’t had a chance to open up and talk about how they feel. They’ve become more insular as a result of the pandemic and being in quarantine.
Students have been having so much stress from family members being sick, family members dying. Also, with all the anti-Asian speech and incidents, it has been very difficult.
Jenna Nguyen, a third-year electronic engineering student, said she believes Asians have become targets over the past few years, and she worries about anti-Asian hate hitting close to home.
“I constantly fear for the well-being of my parents,” Nguyen said. “My parents are in their 50s and 60s and live by themselves. My mother works as a nail salon technician and often closes the nail salon by herself late at night. I constantly fear the moments that my parents go to grocery stores, take a walk, and close the nail salon because I live so far away and I am not there to protect them.”
Nguyen said she has also experienced name calling and fetishization at various times during her 21 years.
“I think (Project Resilience) would be very helpful for Asian American CSULB students because the conversation on mental health is especially important,” Lor said. “AAPI people are seen and impacted by the ‘model minority’ stereotype in more ways than just being seen as the ‘ideal’ minority, but also putting that pressure on young people to be perfect. When they aren’t, that really messes with their psyche and makes it difficult for them to continue to function or try to function well, even if they slip up and fall a little.
“I also think having upper-division students helping out younger AAPI and give guidance would be very helpful, especially for those who are first-generation college students or otherwise.”
As part of the scholarship/internship program, Professor May Lin of the Asian American Studies Department is working on an internship class to place 15 students in local AAPI organizations. The students will complete 90 hours during the fall semester and engage in career readiness services as well.
Project Resilience is part of a campus-wide effort driven by AAPI faculty and staff for many years. It is the result of work initiated by Simon Kim, associate vice president for research and economic development; Mary Ann Takemoto, former AVP of Student Affairs who retired in 2021; and Karen Nakai, former chief of staff to President Jane Close Conoley who left CSULB to become chief of staff to the CSU chancellor in 2019.
“This is a continuation, rather than something new and different,” Simon Kim said. “But given what’s going on in society, now our focus is on mental health. Academic issues are important to address, but there are social, psychological issues that need to be addressed as well – not just for AAPI students, but for all under-represented students.”