Common Threads — Through W&M's Asian Centennial, Students Are Discovering How the University's History Intertwines With Their Own Stories
The wavy-haired young man in the black-and-white photograph looks at the camera with a half-smile and a slightly raised eyebrow. It’s stamped Jan. 9, 1926, but for a moment, the decades seem to vanish and one wonders what he might say about his time at William & Mary.
Benming “Benny” Zhang ’16, J.D. ’20 kept the picture close by during his senior year as he researched the life of Arthur A. Matsu ’27, a star quarterback and football team captain who was the first American citizen of Asian heritage known to attend William & Mary. A self-designed Asian American studies major, Zhang was writing his senior thesis on Matsu at the same time he was working toward breaking a barrier of his own — becoming the youngest and first Asian American person elected to Williamsburg City Council.
Questions circled in his mind: What was Art Matsu thinking at the time this photo was taken? Did he feel like he belonged at William & Mary? How did people react to his blended Japanese and Scottish ethnicity? Where did he live? How was he treated when he went out into the community?
These are some of the strands being explored about Matsu and other alumni as William & Mary commemorates its Asian Centennial. While recognizing the accomplishments of Asian and Asian American students at the university over the past 100 years, the commemoration also seeks to probe the social and historical context of their experiences.
The milestone provides an opportunity to contemplate the ways in which students of Asian heritage have enriched the culture of the university and how to expand on the advances that have been made thus far.
“People’s ideation, imagination and creativity should be informed by diversity,” says Asian Centennial co-chair Francis Tanglao Aguas, a professor of theater and Asian & Pacific Islander American (APIA) studies. “This is a commemoration of opening doors to more diversity.”
President Katherine Rowe established a committee in February to create programming and initiatives tied to the anniversary of when Pu-Kao Chen 1923 (also known as Chen Pu-Kao) — a Chinese citizen who was the first Asian student and first known person of color to attend William & Mary — arrived on campus in 1921. Along with Tanglao Aguas, the centennial is co-chaired by Deenesh Sohoni, a sociology professor and director of the APIA program, with guidance from honorary chair Michael Tang ’76, P ’13. The 20-member committee includes Board of Visitors member Mirza Baig P ’22 and representatives from schools and departments throughout the university. Zhang is one of the younger members of the committee, along with Isabella DiFulvio ’23, co-director of the Asian American Student Initiative, an organization dedicated to Asian American awareness, activism and solidarity with marginalized communities.
“We are hoping for the Asian Centennial to be a platform for William & Mary to become the leader in expanding academic programs and research that promote inclusion of Asian American, Pacific Islander and Southwest Asian students and communities,” Tanglao Aguas says.
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