WBAA examines race and diversity at Purdue (Part One)

Dec 16, 2012

If you take a look around the food court at Purdue’s Memorial Union, there is no doubt you will see students’ fingers and thumbs aflutter with their eyes completely locked on their phone screens, tablets, and laptops. 

Social media’s role on campus continues to rise.  Students get election results from there, sports scores and news, and even the heads-up on the next great viral video.

But, sites such as Facebook and Twitter also shed light on some of the darker sides of campus.

That became evident earlier this year when several Twitter accounts were set up to mock Asian and Asian-American students at Purdue.

The posts would use hateful language to make fun of how these Boilermakers dressed, spoke, and even studied.

"It's very infectious throughout the entire campus because of something that is so easily accessible, so easily spread among what is supposed to be a humorous outlet," said Victoria Loong.

Loong is a junior studying psychology and law and society at Purdue.  She actually picked her major in part to learn about stereotyping and prejudice. 

Her parents immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong in the 1980s and she grew up just outside of Chicago.

Loong decided to come to Purdue for what she calls “a different experience,” but since coming to West Lafayette, she has had to fight for her identity.

“People take that presence and put an image on it and put a label on us that is not correct," she said. "That doesn't promote positive inclusion.”

Asian students make up nearly a quarter of Purdue’s enrollment.

There are more than 9,000 Asian and Asian Americans studying on the West Lafayette campus, an increase of nearly 80-percent from ten years ago.

Tami Dizon is one of them.  She too is working for more campus equality. Her parents are from the Philippines and like Loong, she grew up around Chicago.

She wants to be a voice for other Asian students who she thinks are often silenced at Purdue.

"No one should have that kind of incident happen to them where they are picked on on social media," she said.  "They are not just here to be here and not he heard."

Dizon and Loong are teaming up to break down the stereotypes.

The two are proposing to build an Asian and Asian American Resource and Cultural Center on campus.  

They created an online petition and have received nearly 2,000-signatures, not only from the campus community but from all over the world, including London and Korea.

"I feel like there is so much the campus could benefit from," said Dizon.  "First of all, there are growing numbers.  I feel like it would be a good transition for international Asians to avoid culture shock and also just to educate everyone around the area about our culture."

The students do not know how much the center would cost, but propose paying for the facility through a combination of private donations and support from the university.

Yet, not everyone is on board.  The center has met some opposition.  Both Dizon and Loong say they have heard comments from people who think the center is unnecessary, a waste of taxpayer money, and would further isolate Asian students.

"I think that idea is actually a really big misconception about cultural centers,"

That is Bich Nguyen.  She is an English professor and director of Asian American studies at Purdue.  She supports the idea of a center and believes it will do just the opposite of what opponents argue.  If built, Nguyen thinks the facility will help bring the campus even closer together and serve as a bridge for acceptance and understanding.

"We would have a stronger sense of unity among all the students.  Because, I think that students would know that diversity on campus is an important and wonderful thing and that there would be programs and events supported by that center and open to everybody in the community and everybody on campus," she said.

"I think this kind of center can only make the university stronger and more attractive to perspective students."

The recent incidents of racism against Asian students have only motivated Dizon and Loong to push hard for making the center become a reality.   They want a foundation for the building in the works by the time they graduate in 2014. 

"Obviously it takes funding and planning and all these types of things, so it will take years" said Loong.  "We have made a lot of strides in the past seven years, five years, and I just hope that we can shorten that time down because of this pressing need."

Loong and Dizon have met with Purdue administrators about the issue.  Christine Taylor is the Vice Provost of Diversity at the University.  She says the proposal still needs more work, but once it’s complete, construction of the center will be considered.

"We acknowledge the need for a center and want to work closely with the campus community to make that and bring that into a reality," she said.