How Asian American Studies Promotes Social Justice

Dr. Cindy Huynh, faculty member of the Ethnic Studies Department at SJCC, teaches at a community event.

San José City College is proud to introduce the Associate’s Degree in Social Justice: Asian American Studies. One of our newest offerings from one of our most crucial departments, Ethnic Studies. It’s also a part of our Associate Degree for Transfer (AD-T) Program, for students who are interested in transferring to a 4-year university. 

Today, we’ll look at a few definitions of social justice and why Ethnic Studies (and Asian American Studies in particular) is essential to educational equity, and SJCC’s long-term goals to best serve all students.

“Looking back I see the importance of taking any ethnic [studies] class because it can teach many students about their background and the important impact their community has made through their race and culture.”

Kathleen Monteagudo, ethnic studies student at SJCC

What is Social Justice?

Let’s start with some basic principles.

According to a 2006 United Nations report, “Social justice may be broadly understood as the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth.” 

“Policies focusing on health, education and housing are traditionally seen as particularly important for ensuring equality of opportunities,” the UN said, an approach that “relates to the tradition of the social contract and is a critical aspect of social justice.”

Of course, social justice is closely tied to human rights, but many will argue that it goes a step further. Both share the common goal of promoting human dignity, but social justice more often calls out the originators of the world’s inequities. 

Social justice works to reverse the damage that continues to exploit and oppress BIPOC, poor, disabled, and LGBTQIA+ communities, so that we may all live a more fair and humane existence.

Social Justice at San José City College

As a Bay Area Community College, and a public institution, SJCC plays an important role in the pursuit of social justice in higher education.

This role is highlighted in the Center for Economic and Social Justice’s definition. The CESJ states that social justice “guides us in creating those organized human interactions we call institutions,” and it requires that we accept  “a personal responsibility to collaborate with others, at whatever level of the ‘Common Good’ in which we participate, to design and continually perfect our institutions as tools for personal and social development.”

Social justice is an individual responsibility, but it also falls on institutions like SJCC to lead the resistance against systemic inequities in higher education.

Ethnic Studies in Community Colleges Increases Equity

At SJCC, we don’t take our duty to promote social justice lightly. And we know that ethnic studies must be central in our efforts to do so. Here’s why. 

“Traditional” History is Euro-Centric and Inherently Racist

Until very recently, most people had never heard the phrase “anti-racist education.” But ethnic studies has been pioneering this type of equitable curriculum for decades.

Dr. Cindy Huynh, faculty member of the Ethnic Studies Department at SJCC, recalled its grassroots history. “Ethnic Studies came out of the 1968 Third World Liberation Front student strike. Coalitions of ethnic student groups, faculty, staff, and community members formed through shared violent colonial histories. They demanded the right to be part of education by calling for full access to resources, institutional representation, and curriculum.”

As we become increasingly aware of the social, cultural, and political importance of ethnic studies, there is growing support for the critical education reform that offers drastically increased access to it. Students, communities, families, and educators are calling on our higher education institutions to make ethnic studies a right, but also a requirement.

In 2020, the California State University (CSU) system was one of the first to require students “to take a three-unit ethnic studies class focusing on Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans or Latinx Americans in order to graduate.” 

Though there is certainly a long road ahead — requiring all students to complete a class that centers BIPOC communities — is a triumph.

At SJCC, we firmly agree with Dr. Huynh, who says, “Ethnic Studies is educational equity.” 

Community Colleges Offer a Prestigious Path to Higher-Education

Dr. Huynh is also a champion of community colleges overall. In her TEDx Talk, “Can community colleges become prestigious?” She argues that, “Community colleges are pillars of opportunity. They serve as launching pads into higher education for the communities that surround them.”

Community colleges are “neighborhood institutions,” Dr. Huynh says, they “are important to actualizing educational equity because higher education is willfully exclusive. Colleges and universities deny access, particularly to BIPOC, poor, disabled, undocumented students, despite overwhelming research showing the connection between educational attainment and holistic well-being.”

She believes that community colleges already are prestigious, including SJCC. “Our Ethnic Studies department is a state-wide leader at the community college level. We are an established and growing department. We have 5 degrees, about 15 classes, and really dope, student centered faculty.” Dr. Huynh said. 

“The focus was not on grades, but exposing us to material about each culture that helped us not only to read  about what happened, but to feel and relate to their experiences, and to discuss what they were exposed to.”

Bruce Owashi, ethnic studies student at SJCC

How Asian American Studies at SJCC Promotes Social Justice

As you can see, the intersection of ethnic studies and community colleges is key in the fight for educational equity. That’s why our Associate Degree in Social Justice: Asian American Studies is crucial.

Access to asian american studies is equity in itself, and it can drastically shape your future for the better. 

Asian American Studies Can Have a Life-Changing Impact on Students

Since many Asian American students don’t have the opportunity to learn about their own culture (in a classroom setting) before community college, when they finally do get access to an ethnic studies course that highlights their background, the positive impact is huge.

Kathleen Monteagudo, an ethnic studies student at SJCC, said “I am very fond of my culture and if I can take a course that briefly talks about it, count me in!” Monteagudo, who loves to support local Filipino businesses, was particularly interested in learning about Cambodian American culture in Ethnic Studies 042, Asian Pacific American Culture.

Monteagudo continues to be a strong supporter of ethnic studies education. “Looking back I see the importance of taking any ethnic class because it can teach many students about their background and the important impact their community has made through their race and culture.” Monteagudo said.

Another student, Thu Trang Pham, who took Ethnic Studies 041, Vietnamese American Culture, spoke fondly of her experience too. But she also spoke about the challenges she faced finding Asian American-centered material before she took this class. 

For Pham, Dr. Huynh’s class was eye-opening, “… it was hard for students to find and watch such incredible documentaries like those in our lives. After watching them, I learned more about what happened in the past, what links us to the present, and what will lead us to the future.” She said.

The Asian American Studies coursework is carefully crafted and deeply intentional. All of Dr. Huynh’s students commented on the high quality of the class materials. “Students are guided through theory and action. They learn about Asian American history, culture, and experiences while collaborating on ways to empower themselves and serve their communities.” Said Dr. Huynh.

Asian American Studies Courses Are for Everyone

Ethnic studies and asian american studies benefit everyone. No matter your race or age, taking a few ethnic studies classes will surely help you develop empathy and make more equitable-minded choices and opinions.

Bruce Owashi, a thoughtful returning student who self-identifies as a 73 year old grandfather, sansei, and third generation Japanese American, spoke of Dr. Huynh’s Asian Pacific American course.

“Her class was to focus on six Asian cultures – Japan, China, Korea, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and India, and the journey to and struggle within the US of the immigrants from these areas.” Owashi said. “The focus was not on grades, but exposing us to material about each culture that helped us not only read  about what happened, but to feel and relate to their experiences, and to discuss what they were exposed to.”

This is ethnic studies. By centering BIPOC narratives, its curriculum is rooted in equity through empathy. 

Owashi also spoke of the importance of asian american studies in this particular moment in time. “Asian bashing seems to be in the news lately, but I think if more people were aware of the information shared within this class, a better respect for all minorities would be developed.” 

The rise of anti-Asian sentiment and xenophobia during the COVID-19 pandemic reminds us that Asian American studies is of the utmost importance. SJCC stands firmly with Asian American communities.

“Students are guided through theory and action. They learn about Asian American history, culture, and experiences while collaborating on ways to empower themselves and serve their communities.”

Dr. Cindy Huynh, ethnic studies faculty member at SJCC
A graduating SJCC student poses at the 2019 Commencement Ceremony at the Santa Clara Convention Center.

Guarantee Your Future with Asian American Studies

Last but not least, a few of the rather practical benefits.

Like all of our other Associate’s Degrees for Transfer (AD-T), the Social Justice: Asian American Studies degree at SJCC partners with California Community Colleges to offer the Degree with A Guarantee Program. So, when you complete your general and major requirements with a 2.0 or higher, you are guaranteed a spot at a select number of California State Universities (CSUs). 

If you go on to complete a bachelor’s degree in ethnic or asian american studies, you’ll have tons of career choices. SJCC’s degree requirement page highlights just a few common options for Asian American Studies majors. These include: social work, education, law, entertainment, research, public policy, journalism, non-profit organizations, teaching, and so much more.

Why You Should Pursue a Degree in Asian American Studies

If you are passionate about equity and you want to make a difference in your community, an Associate’s Degree in Social Justice: Asian American Studies at SJCC is a great place to start. It will secure your future in higher education and lead you towards any career path you choose.

Take it from Dr. Huynh, “A background in Asian American Studies supports students in practicing humanizing, culturally rooted service no matter the industry they pursue.”

So check out our Social Justice: Asian American Studies (AD-T) today, as well as all the other great degrees offered by the Ethnic Studies Department.