When Julie Wong ’86 came to Yale College, only five percent of students were Asian American. Coming from a majority Asian American public high school in Los Angeles, this was a major shift.
“I didn’t consider myself a minority … until I got to Yale [and] one of my professors complimented me on how well I spoke English,” Wong said.
In the decades since Wong graduated, the presence of Asians at Yale has increased to 17 percent of the student body. This year, to commemorate the growing community as well as the 160th anniversary of the graduation of Yale’s first Asian student, the University is hosting its first-ever Yale Asian Alumni Reunion — an event that Wong is co-chairing.
From April 11 to 13, nearly 200 Yale alumni from the University’s various schools will descend on campus to honor the Asian-American legacy at Yale and fortify the alumni network. The event features keynote speakers such as Pepsi Chief Executive Officer Indra Nooyi SOM ’80, Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang DRA ’83, U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke ’72 and composer-pianist Vijay Iyer ’92. Current students have also been invited to either attend, plan or perform at the reunion.
Harry Chang ’84, the other reunion co-chair, said the event will celebrate the history of Asians at Yale and promote strong connections within the Asian student and alumni community.
When contacting potential speakers, Chang said, the planning team did some preliminary research to find prominent alumni in varied fields and sent off their invitations. Every one of the four desired keynotes said yes, which Chang said he took as a personal point of pride, as well as an indication of interest in the reunion. Wong stressed the universal appeal of the speaker lineup, adding that organizers asked themselves what bound them together and what they treasured as a group, in order to put together speakers that would be relevant and interesting.
“These are not ‘Asian leaders,’” Wong said. “They’re leaders.”
Though there are many Asians active in the alumni community, Chang said, many students lost touch with Asian alumni groups because they were not placed on email panlists unless they indicated their ethnic origins on a form after graduating. As a result, many alumni including Chang, Wong and Gaurav Khanna ’94, the reunion’s chair of breakout sessions, did not receive any correspondence from Asian alumni until recently, when they identified the problem. Wong said she wonders whether the University’s official number of Asian alumni — 15,000 — may be an underestimate.
Yale College Assistant Dean and Asian-American Cultural Center Director Saveena Dhall also expressed concern that not all Asian alumni are being reached.
“Not everyone’s information is captured and there are those who may not have updated their contact information, so one challenge we’ve faced is making sure people know about this and know they are invited,” Dhall said.
Event organizers all emphasized the importance of having current students at the reunion. Sarah Tomita ’06, the reunion’s marketing chair, said the 15 undergraduates on the Student Leadership Board have been instrumental in alumni outreach — a large part of the planning process.
Luming Chen ’14, executive director of the Student Leadership Board, said being a part of the planning process has allowed her to see the transformation of ideas into reality.
“As a senior, I’m hoping this event will be illuminating both professionally and personally,” Chen said. “Maybe it’ll help ease my anxieties of transitioning to life after Yale.”
Considering that Yale puts on a large number of reunions each year, Tomita said, it is odd that an event like this has not yet happened.
An event for Asian-American alumni was planned in 2006 but was canceled last minute — a move that some organizers of the current event speculated was due to low registration numbers. Chang said this year’s reunion planning team has emphasized a word-of-mouth approach to increase interest and registration.
This approach seemed to work well, Chang said, because the largest draw for attendees is not necessarily the program, but the opportunity to see old friends. The event’s website includes an updated list of reunion attendees to facilitate these connections.
Tomita said organizers “keep up with the times” in their outreach approach by utilizing social media, a tactic that seems to help generate interest amongst young alumni.
Wong said she finds the reunion significant in that it allows the Asian-American community — which she called “the invisible minority” — a chance to have an impact on the wider Yale community. She praised speakers such as Hwang and blogger Jen Wang ’94 for being unafraid to speak about sensitive Asian-American issues directly to larger audiences of mixed backgrounds.
“This is what the reunion is about: not tiptoeing around the issues,” Wong said. “Let’s meet them head on.”
One final goal for the reunion, Chang said, is to ensure that events like these continue to take place once every few years. He added that the reunion is intended to be “the first of many.”
Yung Wing graduated from Yale College in 1854 becoming the University’s first Asian alumnus.