PME honors AAPI Heritage Month

A roundtable convened by the school’s EDI committee spoke on issues facing Asian American & Pacific Islander students, staff and faculty

Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) has a more expansive meaning than one would think, UChicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering Assistant Director of Academic Programs Stella Wang said.

“The term AAPI encompasses 24 distinct groups of people and includes their country of origin, religion, sex, gender expressions on so on,” Wang told the crowd at a recent PME event honoring AAPI Heritage Month. “We want to use this opportunity to celebrate the distinct experiences and achievements of our own community members.”

What resulted was a roundtable of AAPI faculty, staff, and students sharing insights gleaned from their own lived experiences. Convened by the PME Committee on Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion, the event highlighted the diversity within the AAPI community.

“Additionally, we want to create a space for all of the AAPI members to share our experiences and emotions,” Wang said. “Lunar New Year, back in February, was the first event of this year for this affinity group. With this event, we hope that many of our AAPI students, faculty, and staff can feel comfortable and empowered to create more events, conversations and gradually build a more solid community.”

Asst. Prof. Huanhuan Joyce Chen said conversations about these issues can be difficult, but create a stronger PME community.

She told the assembled crowd about an American student who heard Chen talking on the phone with her sister. The student casually called the Chinese language, “noisy.” Chen chose to talk with the student about the beauty and importance of the language, providing an education beyond the classroom and creating a more respectful lab culture in the process.

“Speak out when anyone questions your origins, questions your culture,” Chen advised the crowd.

Much of the discussion centered on the transition many immigrant members of the AAPI community face.

“In India, students speak to their faculty in a very different way than in the U.S. or even in the U.K.,” Director for Postdoctoral Affairs Vipul Sharma said. “It’s a different style, how you dress or how you behave around them. There was a little learning curve on how to become more open, reach out and ask for help, and not just try to figure out everything yourself.”

“That’s something I learned 40 years too late,” added Director of Corporate Engagement Felix Lu, who was born in California to immigrant parents. “Especially growing up in an Asian family, I never thought about asking for help. That was probably my biggest mistake. In the professional world, people are willing to help you even if they have nothing in common, nothing to gain from it.”

PME’s location in Chicago, a diverse global city, helps with the feelings of isolation, said Asst. Prof Chong Liu. Even something so simple as being able to order a dish popular in your hometown can make an international student feel less homesick, she said.

“In Chicago, you see a lot of your own cultural signatures, so you don't feel that you're too far away from home,” Liu said.

Finding a community with shared experiences can be a joy.

“I was the only Indian in my French school,” said STAGE Lab Director of Science Sunanda Prabhu-Gaunkar, who obtained her Diplôme d'Ingénieur in Applied Mathematics and Micro-Nano-Opto Electronics from Ecole Polytechnique before coming to the U.S. for her PhD. “When I came here, I started saying hello to every Indian I saw on the street. My roommate at the time had to stop me,” she added, laughing.

Attendees said the event and others like it help them feel more connected to their new home at PME.

“I’m part of the Asian diaspora. I’ve traveled across an ocean to be here,” said Vikram Ramesh, a graduate student in the Bernien Lab. “It’s nice to see my culture and tradition celebrated.”

The EDI Committee puts on a number of cultural celebrations throughout the year, including the Celebration of African-American History and Culture, Latine Heritage Lunch, and Lunar New Year.