Students in Service and Leadership at Harvard

Cultural Organizations at Harvard: A Primer

A few weeks ago, in a conversation with an admitted student, I was asked about the Asian/Asian American community at Harvard—in particular, what resources the College provided for students of color. I thought about it for a bit, but nothing came to mind. I'm not trying to make a jab at Harvard; I just honestly could not think of anything that Harvard, as an administrative body, did to make me feel more comfortable as an Asian American student. 

That is not to say that these resources don't exist. The Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, the Diversity Peer Educators, and the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging do, I assume, do things to better the experience of minority students on campus, and I do not intend to discount their contributions. What I am positing, however, is that for the average Asian American student at Harvard, these organizations have little to no direct bearing on their daily lives and experiences as students of color. In other words, I think if you were to ask the average Asian American student at Harvard the same question that I was asked by that admitted student, none of those organizations would appear in their answer. What they would reference, I think, would be one of the hallmarks of Harvard's campus culture and student life—our clubs and student organizations.

Clubs make up a huge part of the lives of Harvard students—to a unique extent among college students, even from other elite institutions (As observed by one of my professors who spends half his time at Harvard and the other half at UC Berkeley, “The amount of energy here that goes into things that are not classes but that are not pure fun is insane.”). There are over 400 registered organizations at Harvard, and many of them are specifically for Asian/Asian American-identifying students.

There are performance groups like the Asian American Dance Troupe, the Asian Student Arts Project, or Fusian that organize annual dance, theater, or a cappella performances. There are conference-organizing groups like the Harvard College China Forum, the Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations, or the Harvard College in Asia Program whose primary focus is organizing conference(s) for important figures in the Asian/Asian American community. And finally, there are cultural organizations, the most ill-defined of them all and the focus of my research. 

There are approximately 20 different Asian/Asian American cultural organizations at Harvard, each one representing a different Asian cultural background. Some are larger than others; for example, the Chinese Students Association has around eight hundred general members, whereas the Singapore, Indonesian, and Malaysian Students Association has, on average, less than ten. Most of these differences, however, are reflections not necessarily of the cultural community on campus, but of the proportions of students admitted to Harvard more broadly. There are a lot of people in CSA because Harvard admits a lot of Chinese students.

Each group, too, is slightly different in their scope. For example, the Asian American Association (AAA), by definition, comprises students of all Asian backgrounds, while the Korean International Students Association is meant to serve, specifically, Korean International students. Occasionally, these scopes overlap, for example, with the South Asian Association and Dharma: The Hindu Students Association—and also most obviously with the case of AAA.


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