Asian and Asian American students today often face racism, intergenerational conflict, and rigorous academic pressures — on top of the normal stresses of student life. These challenges have been amplified by the current global pandemic, where stereotypes and misinformation have often flown freely.
Let’s Talk!, a conference for cross-cultural professionals, parents, and students, creates intentional space for the discussion of these pressures — both the perennial pressures and the unique circumstances of the moment. Highlighting the diversity of Asian identities and opening discussions about mental health, the conference seeks to promote the success and well-being of Asian and Asian-American students, as well as build an intergenerational network of positive relationships and support.
The annual event is organized by Lecturer Josephine Kim and a team of volunteers, the majority of whom are HGSE students and alumni. This year, the team faced the added challenge of organizing a conference — and building community — in a remote setting.
Below, some of the event’s organizers — master’s students Han Nah Park and Cody Uyeda; Shubh Agrawal, Ed.M.’16, C.A.S.’17; and Tony DelaRosa, Ed.M.’18 — discuss the evolution of Let’s Talk! into a virtual series, which kicks off this Friday, October 30, what motivates them, and what they wish their own teachers had known.
Let’s Talk! . . . about what?
Agrawal: “Let’s talk” about what makes it hard to talk about mental health in our community. For me, the Let’s Talk! conference allows for representation and also visibility for the reality that many APISA+ folx experience in terms of mental health concerns and mental health-related stigma. The power of bringing together a community of students, families, and mental health professionals allows for us to unpack this conversation and highlight the ways in which we can all take responsibility for breaking down the stigma of mental health.
Uyeda: “Let’s talk” about labels, “othering,” and the perpetuation of false Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) stereotypes; about the intersections of culture, gender, and the place of AAPIs in American society; about the overlooked nature of mental health and vulnerability, and those within the AAPI community who are still overshadowed and overlooked today.
One of the goals of Let’s Talk! is to highlight diversity among Asian identities. Why is this so important in an educational setting?
Park: There is a tendency to group all Asian/Asian Americans together under a singular stereotype or narrative. However, in reality, there is wide range of Asian identities that are accompanied with unique struggles. Failure to recognize the diversity among Asian identities can lead to students feeling unseen and misunderstood. The danger of viewing someone under a single story can significantly stunt student growth. Each student brings a unique culture, history, and personal story into the classroom and recognizing this diversity will make each student feel valued and recognized.
“There is wide range of Asian identities that are accompanied with unique struggles. Failure to recognize the diversity among Asian identities can lead to students feeling unseen and misunderstood. … Each student brings a unique culture, history, and personal story into the classroom and recognizing this diversity will make each student feel valued and recognized.”
DelaRosa: Education has the power to inform, to inspire, to innovate, and even the power to liberate. Let’s Talk! gives me a space to be an unapologetic Filipino/a/x American (FilAm). Being able to exist beyond the White and Black binary system that is the U.S. education system, is liberating. Being able to discuss how FilAms are often mistaken as another race or ethnicity is liberating. Being able to identify with both the “blood of the conqueror (Spain) and blood of the conquered” is liberating. Being able to learn in a space that honors these tensions of identity allows for anti-oppression and decolonization to work. It opens up a pathway to radical imagination and critical hope for one’s self and one’s community.
For the first time this year, Let’s Talk! is being held virtually as a series. What challenges and opportunities has the pivot to virtual created?
Agrawal: The virtual conference has pros and cons, just like any pandemic adaptation! We are all certainly grappling with challenges of community building, emotional safety, and ensuring that all voices are heard in what has usually been a participant-focused conference. With the virtual platform, however, comes increased accessibility, the engagement of professionals who would have otherwise been unable to join due to their scheduling and geographic constraints, and the opportunity to bring together community members who may have otherwise never been able to join us on campus.
Uyeda: I think differing time zones will be one of the larger issues, but with such challenges also come new opportunities. With a traditional in-person conference, there are issues of travel, locality, and venue capacity, but with a virtual Let’s Talk! conference, I am optimistic about the possibility of engaging larger, more diverse, and more global audiences.
What motivated you personally to get involved with this conference?
DelaRosa: There’s two reasons why I get involved in some capacity each year. First, as a former co-president of the Pan-Asian Coalition for Education (PACE), which works in tandem with Let’s Talk!, this is my way of giving back to a community that nurtured and nourished me. My family at PACE and Let’s Talk! helped me stay grounded and supported at Harvard, and held me accountable for the leader that I was growing to be. I want to be that for other Asian Americans and FilAms.
Agrawal: What has always empowered me is something Dr. Kim talks about when she references the power of representation and “taking up space” on Appian Way as APISA+ folx. It means so much for me to engage in these important conversations because I do genuinely think that each and every conversation leads to multiple more conversations within families and communities. I have faith that these conversations will turn the tide and destigmatize mental health among the young people we are lucky enough to serve.
“It means so much for me to engage in these important conversations because I do genuinely think that each and every conversation leads to multiple more conversations within families and communities. I have faith that these conversations will turn the tide and destigmatize mental health among the young people we are lucky enough to serve.”
Thinking back to your own experience as a student, what’s one thing you wish your teachers knew?
Park: I wish my teachers knew that cultural transitions and the process of acculturation is incredible hard and confusing.
DelaRosa: I wish my teachers would have seen how my undergraduate degree at the University of Cincinnati in linguistics and Asian studies would amount to me being a national anti-racist educator, consultant, and speaker. I remember that I was gaslighted by a high school English teacher who asked me, “What are you going to even do with a linguistics and Asian studies degree, something so primeval and intangible.” At that time in my life I really had so many issues with self-deprecation and imposter syndrome because I always did dismally on tests, namely, the ACT. No matter how hard I studied I kept scoring below average. My peers would even joke by saying that I was a “failed Asian” because of this.
Agrawal: I think I would say the pronunciation of my name, but it’s much more nuanced than the simple articulation of sounds. For me, when someone takes the care to hear me pronounce my name and practice it back to me, it indicates to me that they see my name as more than just a sound but as having inherent value as an identifier to me. I’ve cherished so much, as well, the friends and classmates who have leveraged their privilege in moments to correct folx who are mispronouncing my name so I don’t have to be the one that does it all of the time, recognizing that often times the hardest folx to correct are those who hold places of power in my life.
Let’s Talk! 2020–21 Virtual Series begins on Friday, October 30, with a screening of Maineland, a 2017 documentary following the experiences of two Chinese international students attending boarding school in rural Maine. A panel discussion will follow the screening. Register here!