This series from the community features members of the SAPAAC (Stanford Asian Pacific American Alumni Club) Asian American Studies Coalition from different generations sharing their first-hand experiences as Asian Americans on campus. Visit www.sapaac.org to find out more about the coalition’s efforts to advocate for Asian American Studies at Stanford. Read previous entries: Fall 2021, Winter 2022, Spring 2022 and Summer 2022.
During the fall of 1973, as a freshman living in Arroyo House in Wilbur Hall, I received a form seeking input about activities that might interest me. The survey ended with a request to “rate my Asian consciousness.” This attempt to gauge new students’ interest in Asian American-themed activities was completely lost on me, because I was not yet in tune with my ethnic and cultural identity.
Growing up in New Jersey, my childhood friends were descendants of Ellis Island immigrants who came from Europe. I was familiar with the challenges their grannies and papaws had overcome to learn English, establish skills and provide for their families. However, I had no appreciation for the experience of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans who had been forced to leave their homes, friends, land, businesses and belongings in early 1942. I only vaguely recalled stories from my own cousins about living in horse stalls at the Santa Anita Racetrack or celebrating a new baby sister in barracks amid sagebrush and cactus.
Unfortunately, Stanford University in the 1970s did not provide much academic education in these matters. Beyond an occasional “study break bao” at the student-run People’s Teahouse in Junipero — later renamed Okada House in 1979 — I remained only vaguely aware of our community’s footprint. While I was at Stanford, Asian Americans represented just 4.9 percent of the undergraduate student body.
Only later did I come to appreciate the enormity of the injustice toward Japanese Americans, through researching my own dad’s story. He sought to avoid incarceration with roughly 5,000 other “voluntary evacuees,” escaping from Pasadena to Utah in early 1942, only to be arrested twice and held at the Alien Detention Center in Missoula, Montana. He was eventually paroled and allowed to return to his life and profession as a photographer.
More broadly, the circumstances Japanese Americans faced were absurd, and the frustration they endured in internment camps and alien detention centers was unimaginable. I cannot fathom leaving my home and job with only a couple of suitcases, and then returning years later to start over — or even journeying somewhere entirely new to create a life for my family.
In uncovering the Japanese American story, I encountered two individuals with deep Stanford ties who reinforced institutional racism through actions that seem crazy and loathsome today.
Several of our institution’s early thought leaders, including Stanford presidents David Starr Jordan and Ray Lyman Wilbur, promulgated the tenets of eugenics. So did Dr. Edward Alsworth Ross, a professor of economics and sociology from 1893-1900. Fanning a fear that Asian immigration would ruin the “Anglo-Saxon character of American society,” Ross reportedly suggested that “should the worst come to the worst, it would be better for us to train our guns on every vessel bringing Japanese to our shores than permit them to land.” He was eventually fired, in part for his advocacy of eugenics.
A proud Stanford alumnus, Colonel Karl R. Bendetsen ’29 L.L.B. ’32 — who, interestingly, denied his Jewish faith to join the Theta Delts, and changed the spelling of his last name from “Bendetson” in 1942 in an attempt to appear Danish — also spearheaded virulent anti-Asian efforts. He is described as the chief architect behind President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which authorized the exclusion of 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast. The sweeping action ordered any person, no matter their age, who had “one drop of Japanese blood” to be confined.
All this was unknown to me when I was on campus in the 1970s: there were no Asian American Studies courses. I wish I had been invited to class discussions about America slamming the door on immigrants from China and preventing Japanese from becoming naturalized citizens. I wish I had been able to learn about Colonel Bendetsen’s role in the mass incarceration of an entire generation living on our West Coast. Instead, I waltzed through much of my life without appreciating these stunning injustices.
In 2023, Asian Americans make up more than one-quarter of undergraduates and 19.6% of our overall student body. Our community recognizes the complex history of the Asian American experience, even without being prompted by a student survey. But does Stanford believe the same?
Students deserve to learn about the unjust, exclusionist and politically motivated actions — including those initiated by Stanford alumni and faculty — that have impacted Asian American lives and our collective culture.
It has been slow going since the founding of the Asian American-theme dorm in 1971, more than 50 years ago — and over 25 years since the establishment of an Asian American Studies program at Stanford. The program was habitually underfunded and neglected, and there were years when the most basic “Introduction to Asian American Studies” course was not even offered. Let’s not force students to go elsewhere for Asian American Studies when Stanford has the potential to create these learning experiences.
This school year, we now have a new Associate Director of Asian American Studies. And due in large part to the enthusiasm and generosity of the Stanford Asian American Studies Endowment Initiative (SAASEI), we finally see the University administration, the Office of Development and the School of Humanities and Science collaborating to support a new Asian American research center. This is an amazing start, with the potential to become a robust education and research program — and hopefully a sign that the University now considers Asian American Studies an academic priority.
There is much more to be done — and we will be watching closely to see that the University follows through on these efforts and more. May the Class of 2026 and all future students be able to choose from a wide array of Asian American Studies classes, reflecting our community’s diversity!
Risa Shimoda ’77
Asian American Studies Working Group
Stanford Asian Pacific American Alumni Club