SUNY Oswego Asian Student Association flourishes despite concerns during COVID-19

SUNY Oswego’s Asian Student Association was concerned about its survival after COVID-19, but its efforts to champion diversity and cultural exchange through inclusive events has allowed the organization to prosper.

ASA has existed as a campus organization for decades. The vice president of the organization in 2001, Jason Shi, attributes this to its inclusivity and closeness with fellow campus organizations.

“Anybody could join – we welcomed everybody,” said Shi. “My treasurer was African American, my [public relations officer] was my Italian brother. We had a lot of people– our dinners had like 600 people.”

The Asian Student Association works to give voices to the campus’s Asian minority, and educate the campus as a whole on situations involving its Asian population.

“The Asian Student Association’s main goal here on campus is to raise Asian awareness and be able to vocalize the voices of the Asian population here on campus,” said Nathalie Wijerathna, the organization’s current president. 

To spotlight Asian awareness, the organization holds many large on-campus events, including a full week of events in the spring ranging from fashion shows to dinners.

“Recently during the spring semester we had our big dinner,” said Winnie Huynh, the organization’s vice president. “We had our full ASA week which also entailed lots of other programs as well.”

These programs are more than just educational events for the campus. The Taste of Asia dinner featured foods from all over Asia, and ASA prioritizes providing a safe environment for foreign students to feel comfortable and indulge in their cultures.

“What we do as ASA is try to create an environment where a lot of international exchange students still feel at home,” said Huynh, “even though they are thousands of miles away.”

The Asian Student Association’s inclusive efforts also go beyond their events. Their executive board is chosen in a way that represents as many of Asia’s unique regions as possible, and allows foreign exchange students to see people they can relate to.

“You want to see yourself in there, you want to see that you can also fit in there,” said Wijerathna. “We want to have a variety of shades, a variety of countries, and I think that’s a big part of trying to instill diversity.”

During COVID-19, ASA had to use Zoom for its events, which hurt its ability to reach out to campus. The organization began to doubt its ability to survive past the pandemic.

“I think the organization has definitely grown in the fact that we didn’t know if there was going to be an *ASA* after the COVID year, but we brought it back,” said Wijerathna. 

After the pandemic, ASA’s executive board worked to bolster the organization and create a more inclusive environment by better representing as many Asian cultures as possible in their events.

“That means catering to every region of Asia, or if we’re doing a trivia program, we’re making sure we are including East Asian culture, as well as aspects of West Asian culture, or South Asian culture,” said Wijerathna. “We want to make sure that we’re touching all the bases we can, because we don’t want anybody to feel left out.”

The organization’s focus on representing every cultural group and Asian student on campus has allowed for more opportunities for its members and event attendees to learn about peoples they previously may not have interacted with.

“You learn so many things you feel like you would already know, but they tell you more in depth about it, and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’d never known about this,’” said Huynh.

Similar to the ASA of 2001, the organization attributes much of its success to its relationship with other multicultural organizations on campus. During their ASA week events, like their Taste of Asia dinner, many tables were filled with students from other multicultural organizations who came to learn about and exchange cultures.

“We had a spicy food challenge with the Latino Student Union during our Asian Student Association week and that was really great because we were able to see people come together, people from different communities that haven’t met each other on campus before,” said Wijerathna.

ASA’s emphasis on cultural exchange and support between multicultural organizations has greatly impressed their alumni, who spent much of their years in the organization promoting the same ideals.

“That’s the key,” said Shi. “When I was in, I was doing the same thing. We worked with other orgs, we supported other orgs, and we supported each other. We were not only learning Asian cultures, but we were learning other cultures as well.”

Although ASA was concerned about its survival during COVID-19, the members have worked tirelessly to keep going as an organization committed to inclusivity and culture. Even before their Taste of Asia dinner, Wijerathna was worried about whether or not the organization would succeed – and the dinner ended up selling out of tickets over five hours before the dinner took place.