Diversity at William & Mary is being celebrated in the coming years as the school prepares to commemorate its first Asian students.
“Our goal is really to identify that special quality that is at the heart of William & Mary that allows for those who are marginalized to thrive despite their identity,” said Francis Tanglao Aguas, a professor of theater and Asian Pacific Islander American Studies. “If we can identify where that spirit comes from, we can celebrate it and improve it and expand its reach so it’s not just once in a lifetime, but a part of the culture at William & Mary.”
It has only been a decade since the college started an Asian American studies major and now, Aguas said, it is important to recognize the significance of these past students’ struggles and victories on campus.
Aguas is one of the leaders behind the movement to celebrate and honor diversity at the college as the community plans a commemoration year — 2024. Originally the plans were centered around Art Matsu, who was believed to be the first Asian American student, and first student of color, who started school in 1924.
Aguas said Matsu is assumed to be Japanese American with a white mother, based on research.
However, a recent discovery from Shayna Gutcho, the Mosaic Fellow at SWEM Special Collection, showed that Pu-Kao Chen was the first Asian student, from China, to graduate the college in 1923.
A photo of Chen was found in the school’s yearbook, the Colonial Echo, from 1923. He is believed to have been not only the first international student from a non-European country, but also the first student of color to graduate from the college, Aguas said.
“With our five-year initiative before the 100 years of Art Matsu, we hope to find even earlier information of [persons of color and] Asians at [William & Mary,]” Aguas said in an email. “The distinction of who was the earliest student may change, depending on what our further research will manifest.”
Before Matsu and Chen, Aguas said there were two other Asian American exchange students, but Matsu had previously believed to have been the first to start and finish at William & Mary in four years.
“In Asian & Pacific Islander American Studies, Art Matsu holds special significance because he is the first Asian American on record and we have ample material on him,” Aguas said in an email.
While the commemoration year is centered around Matsu, the idea is to remember and learn about various students of color and their time at the college.
“As an Asian and Pacific Islander American Studies academic program, our research will primarily look at Asians/Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and Middle Eastern/South West Asian students,” Aguas said in an email. “If we manage to find earlier students from other communities, we will also release the information.”
The college’s Asian and Pacific Islander community has started planning commemorative events and collecting research to better understand how students of different racial backgrounds fit into the school’s history.
“In exploring the history of Asian Americans, we also get to consider how biracial people [such as Matsu] are considered,” he said. “We are able to deeply explore the complications of Virginia history, rather than using it as a judgment call against the institution.”
Aguas said he began researching the history when he started at the college in 2005. During his time, he has collaborated with students to sift through old yearbooks, flyers, advertisements, all looking for clues of Matsu’s life and other students of color.
In the next four years those efforts will be ramped-up as the community prepares to honor and remember the students.
Part of the research now involves reaching out to the college’s widespread alumni network to hear their stories and see if they have any clues.
Heein Choi, a 2018 graduate, has been helping work on the project since he started at William & Mary as an undergraduate and is now working to connect with alumni.
“We’re asking about Asian American identity,” he said. “From an alumni perspective, it’s offering support to the next generation of students so they can grow and build a platform that is needed.”
So far, planning for the commemorative activities are still in the beginning stages but Aguas said the next step is to coordinate with Fanchon Glover, the chief diversity officer, and the Provost Office at the college as well as start to create a steering committee for the commemoration.
Aguas said those activities won’t just be about Asian Americans. It will be to remember students of various backgrounds who have thrived on campus in the face of adversity.
While there will be features on some of the first students of color to come to the school, Aguas said there is also a lot of research being done on students during the 1960s and 1970s that tell interesting stories about the school during the Civil Rights movement.
“Research is our top priority,” he said. “So we want to use these five years to do as much archival research and community outreach efforts as possible.”
To learn more about the project or how to get involved, visit William & Mary’s department of Asian & Pacific Islander American Studies online.