Pace University’s Sammi Li is proudly bringing cultural education to campus as president of the Asian Student Union. The sophomore, who started the club her freshman year, grew up in a predominantly Asian community in her hometown of Flushing, New York, but decided to branch out during her college years by attending Pace.
While at Pace, Li noticed a lack of representation for Asian students on campus, so she formed a club that would bring Asian students from all walks of life together and promote diversity on campus.
The ASU hosts multiple events throughout the year dedicated to celebrating Asian cultures and educating students who may not know much about these cultures. Their Taste of Asia event, for example, brought awareness to different foods from Asian countries and their “Stay Woke” discussion introduced students to successful Asian figures, as well as issues that the Asian American community faces that are not as well known to the general public.
Li hopes that the Asian Student Union will continue to thrive after she graduates and continues to promote awareness. She also encourages students who have similar visions to form their own clubs and inspire others with their messages.
KP: What has your experience been like as an Asian-American student?
Sammi Li: I’m from Flushing, New York, which is in Queens, and that area is a predominantly Asian community. What made me choose to come to Pace in Pleasantville was that it was out of the city and was a completely different environment.
Coming to Pace was a huge change because everyone was of the same ethnicity back home and it was rare to see a white person there. Everyone here is really different and I wasn’t used to being in this type of environment.
Even though Pace is only about 40 minutes outside of the city, I still consider it a rural area because of all the small towns. Culture-wise, I did feel a little bit out of place because I wasn’t used to seeing all these different faces, but I found different people that I connect with and that’s what made it all work.
KP: What inspired you to create the Asian Student Union?
SL: I noticed that a lot of my friends had cultural clubs in high school that represented different ethnicities, but I didn’t see that at Pace. I had connected with a few other Asian students and one of them threw out the idea of starting an Asian club. My immediate response was, “We’re not going to call it an Asian club, we’re going to call it something better than that!” So, we came up with the Asian Student Union.
There was a small group of Asian people at Pace but we were all scattered around, so forming the club brings everyone together and lets them know that they’re not the only ones here. The club gives us an opportunity to be represented on campus and connect with other organizations, as well as spread more diversity on Pace’s campus.
KP: What was the process like for starting this organization?
SL: We already had a good set of people to serve on the executive board and a group of people who were already interested in becoming members, so people-wise we were already set with getting the organization confirmed and official through student government.
Getting approved was our biggest obstacle because, at the time we were trying to get recognized, they were going through their transition period, so whoever was supposed to approve our constitution was slacking. Our approval got delayed throughout the summer and in August we reached out to new EBP, who finally got us approved. Through that, we were finally a recognized organization.
At Pace, once organizations get recognized they can receive funding, but it’s a whole different process through student government. Following our recognition, in September we had to do a presentation that stated why we want money and what we would do with it, and we got approved to get funding.
KP: What kind of events does the ASU host?
SL: We hosted our first event in the spring, which was the Chinese New Year celebration. People could decorate their own lanterns, we had a YouTuber called ukewithnix perform and P.F. Chang’s catered it. Our last event was called Taste of Asia.
We collaborated with an organization called Spoon University, which is a huge national organization that has different branches in multiple schools. The event represented six different countries which all had their own table. We had samples of different foods from each country that people could try.
Around 76 people attended the event, which was a good turnout considering it was later at night. An upcoming event we’re hosting will celebrate Holi, which is an Indian holiday celebrating spring. People who celebrate that holiday typically throw colored powder in the air, so we’re going to do that on one of the lawns in front of a residence building.
KP: Which event that you all put on would you consider the most important?
SL: I would say our Taste of Asia event was the most important because it was our most successful collaboration with another club and it was also our most attended event. It was a very straightforward event — not that our other events aren’t, but sometimes people just want to get to the point. It also featured free food, which attracts everybody. Within 20 minutes after letting people in, all the food was gone, so people clearly liked it!
KP: I read about an event you were planning to put on called “Stay Woke.” Can you tell me about the outcome of that?
SL: The turnout was pretty good; it was our usual crowd of people but we had some new faces as well. We talked about notable Asian Americans in our community and successful people who have done great things.
We talked about Amy Tan, who is a Chinese-American author. She won awards for her books and had one of her books turned into a children’s show on PBS. We also talked about Dalip Singh Saund, who was the first Asian to be elected to Congress.
We also talked about some issues that impact the community, like what happened to Vincent Chin, an Asian American who was murdered in the 1980s. This news story isn’t as widely recognized as other discrimination stories that we hear today. That was an important issue to bring forward since a lot of Asian students in the room hadn’t even heard about it prior to the event, so it built awareness and recognition of the issue.
Our main goal with this event was to bring awareness to some people who have been successful and give the people who attended the event some faces and names to associate with some of the work they’ve seen from these people in their childhoods.
KP: What do you hope other students at Pace will gain from having this type of organization on campus?
SL: I hope they gain an open mind to different cultures and see what all of the cultural clubs on campus have to offer. I feel like most people gravitate toward what they know and what they are comfortable with, so people aren’t likely to go to an event on their own unless a friend brings them to an event.
Also, I hope they gain an awareness of other Asian cultures that they might not categorize as Asian. When people think of Asia, they tend to think of southeastern Asia, like China, Korea and Japan, but there is also India, Middle Eastern countries and Israel, which most people don’t expect to be a part of Asia.
KP: What do you think the future holds for the ASU?
SL: I hope that it will still be around after my executive board and I graduate. I’ve heard stories about how there was a Southeast Asian club on campus a few years before I got there but it wasn’t as successful, so it just died down.
I hope that we can build a strong following in the coming years and find people who are willing to step into our places and have a similar vision as ours to keep the club going and motivate them to spread diversity and bring awareness on campus. Mainly, our short-term goal is to build membership and find people who are inspired by our mission.
KP: Do you have any advice for people who want to start similar organizations?
SL: I would say just do it. Also, if you have big ideas in mind, start small first. I’ve learned that you can’t rush into discussion topics that people aren’t comfortable talking about or don’t have much experience discussing because the responses might not meet your expectations even if you have a great presentation and questions prepared. Start off with small activities that give people a taste of what you have to offer and slowly build up to those bigger discussions and events.