By Paige Masten
For most of his life, Abhishek Shankar wanted to be white.
Shankar, 20, is Indian American. Shankar’s parents, who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s, hoped their American-born children would still embrace their Indian identity. But they didn’t know they’d be raising Shankar and his brother in a world post-9/11, heightened with racism and anti-brown violence.
It doesn’t matter that they aren’t Arab nor Muslim, though neither of those identities make someone any less American; to the rest of the country, it doesn’t matter.
Someone throws a brick through Shankar’s parents’ car after 9/11. For nearly a decade, Shankar’s mother refrains from wearing cultural Indian clothing, so she doesn’t stand out.
The Shankars choose to separate themselves from their Indian identity, hoping their children’s experiences in America will be better.
Despite all of their efforts to help their sons assimilate — burying the religion, the language, the culture — Shankar and his brother still have the same experience and are still perceived in the same way.
The constant question of “where are you from?” The time someone from the neighborhood told Shankar and his family they were “sand n——.”
“I hate how I look,” Shankar would think to himself. “I hate that my skin is this color.”
Then, in 2017, Shankar comes to UNC-Chapel Hill as a bright-eyed first year and finds himself surrounded by a community who knows exactly how that feels.
Asian Americans, the largest ethnic minority at UNC, comprise about 11% of the student body and 20% of the 2020 incoming class. But in 2017, they are the only group without a space dedicated to its culture on campus — and a survey conducted by UNC in 2016 found that 35% of Asian American students reported they lacked a sense of belonging.
“The journey of self-acceptance and embracing the culture only happened when I came to college,” Shankar says. “Seeing that there were people like me that were proud of who they were, and willing to share it with others.”
Now, Shankar is the director of the student-led Asian American Center campaign, which has spent more than a year working to establish an on-campus space where Shankar and his peers can feel supported and understood.
The seed is planted
It’s May 2019 and Sean Nguyen is meeting his friend June Yom, president of the Asian American Students Association, for coffee. Yom told him that Eugene Lao, a UNC alumnus who co-founded AASA more than 30 years ago, wanted to give the organization a $100,000 gift.
But Yom thought the money could be used for something bigger — the creation of an Asian American Center at UNC.
Nguyen, 21, has struggled with what it means to be Asian American; he calls the creation of the center his “coming-of-age moment.” Nguyen believes in the center, so he becomes the inaugural director of the student campaign.
Shankar, co-director of development Preeyanka Rao and several of their peers spend the following summer laying the roots for what they hope will become the Asian American Center.
Nguyen describes the campaign experience as “serendipitous,” and from that day forward, things begin to fall into place. Ten students working from their bedrooms over the summer, bringing a dream to life and conducting phone calls and meetings reaching across time zones. They talk with UNC’s administration, convincing them that the community needs a center like this on campus.
They are not the first students to have this dream — the seed had been planted more than two decades before by student advocates of an Asian American Resource Center. But without enough administrative support and momentum to water it, the dream shriveled up.
Now, a new generation of students is here to replant the seed, and for Shankar, Rao and Nguyen, continuing the movement feels like coming full circle.
The budding of the center
Shankar is studying in Washington, D.C. for the semester. It’s Jan. 29, a Wednesday, so he’s at work, performing his duties as an intern for a public health organization. From the outside, it seems like a normal day.
But today, the campaign team faces its biggest obstacle yet: getting the approval of the University Board of Trustees.
Shankar can’t focus, his anxiety is too high. On his lunch break, his eyes are glued to his phone, frantically checking for updates from his teammates, who are gathered in the ballroom of the Carolina Inn, listening to the meeting and awaiting the board’s decision.
Finally, Shankar gets a text from Rao: the board has officially granted the Asian American Center authorization to establish.
Shankar doesn’t get emotional often, but the immensity of the moment overwhelms him. Suddenly, everything they’ve been working toward for almost a year — the fundraising, the organizing, the late nights and exhaustion — feels so incredibly real.
Back in Chapel Hill, the team is celebrating with hugging, crying and standing in shock, struggling to process the full extent of what just happened.
“Damn,” Nguyen thinks to himself. “We really did that.”
Rao describes that moment as one of the highlights of her year. But she knows the gates have just opened and there is much work left to be done to get the center off the ground.
This crucial step in their journey happened much faster than the team could have hoped for or expected, but the road ahead is long and winding. The team struggles with juggling the responsibilities of being full-time students while pouring their hearts and souls into the campaign.
“We felt the weight of Asian American activists at UNC historically on our shoulders, and the future of Asian American students depending on us to get this job done,” Nguyen says.
A center in bloom
Only nine months later, the center is preparing for its official opening.
It’s the fastest that a center has ever been built at UNC. By comparison, the Carolina Latinx Center, which opened in July 2019, took more than 10 years.
It’s an impressive feat, but the campaign team knows the journey began much earlier in 1994, when the first whispers of an Asian American Resource Center appeared in the student newspaper. It began in the moments when Shankar, Rao, Nguyen and their peers felt they didn’t belong on campus, when they wished for more resources on campus for people like them.
“We knew it wouldn’t benefit us,” Shankar says. “We knew that it wouldn’t ultimately happen in our timeline, but it would be something that was ever-present for every future generation to come.”
The center’s inaugural event — a discussion of the film “I’m Not Racist … Am I?” — is the first in a series of events about anti-Blackness in the Asian American community. Rao and the development team have raised around $630,000 so far. Now, they’re hoping to raise $5 million over the next five years to fully endow the center, so it can exist in perpetuity.
Until that event, Shankar says, it still felt like an idea. But it hits him like a wave: the center is here.
He hopes that the center will serve as a resource for students like him, who’ve struggled to come to terms with their identity.
“I don’t think the way to address it is avoidance,” Shankar says. “Avoid the difficult conversations, avoid sharing in the culture, things like that. And that’s why I think the center will be successful because I really just don’t want what happened to me — what happened to people like me — to happen to others in the future.”
The team knows they’ve created something much bigger than themselves — a place for future generations of Asian American students to explore, affirm and belong. At last, the seed will bloom. To Nguyen, the moment feels historic.
“Events at the center will come and go, but regardless, there will be that presence there,” Nguyen says. “And somebody’s job at UNC-Chapel Hill will be to make sure that there is a center promoting Asian American voices and Asian American culture.”
Edited by: Evan Castillo