In 2000, the Asian American Cultural Center was made up of furniture donated from graduating seniors — several couches had stains on them that were covered up with throw blankets — and the space was shared between Asian and Chicano students until La Casa Cultural was established that same year.
Now, 16 years after Saveena Dhall arrived at Yale to lead the AACC, the center has undergone a significant transformation, both physically and in terms of its influence on campus.
This fall, as Dhall transitions from her position as Yale College assistant dean and AACC director to become an associate dean at the School of Nursing, she leaves behind a legacy of growing and strengthening the Asian-American community on campus. Students interviewed spoke highly of Dhall’s leadership at the center, and many said they will miss her presence. Dhall told the News that sending her Aug. 18 farewell e-mail announcing her departure was one of the “hardest things” she has done in life.
“Dean Dhall has been the AACC community’s rock throughout the past 16 years,” said AACC’s Co-Head Coordinator Hannah Thai ’17. “During both happy and challenging times, Dean Dhall has always remained a patient, caring and inspirational mentor and leader. As a result of Dean Dhall’s fierce advocacy for the AACC and Asian-American community, she has changed Yale, the AACC and my life for the better.”
Reflecting on her time at the AACC, Dhall said she dedicated most of her energy to improving the center’s physical infrastructure and building a sense of community, both on campus and among Yale’s Asian-American alumni. In fact, she requested a budget from the administration to buy new furniture as one of her first actions upon becoming the center’s director in 2000. Since then, the center’s kitchen has been renovated, the building’s brick exterior has been cleaned and all of the windows have been replaced. Just last school year, the AACC went through an extensive interior renovation and opened the Gary Y. Okihiro Library, which Dhall hopes will become a lending library in the near future.
Progress over the years is reflected in hard numbers as well — in 2000, the AACC had around 800 undergraduates and 12 affiliated student groups; in 2016, those figures have grown to 1,600-plus Asian-American undergraduates and nearly 60 student groups, 12 of which are organized by graduate and professional school students. To accommodate this growth, Dhall said her duties have also evolved to manage a much larger and more diverse community.
“A big part of my job is to help people realize how unbelievably diverse, multilayered and rich the Asian-American identity is,” she said. “It’s immensely difficult but rewarding work to be able to find threads that appeal to different people. [The AACC] is an affirming and brave space, and I want to see all sides of you: the artistic side of you, the ethnic side of you, the gender side of you.”
LiLi Johnson GRD ’19, a graduate assistant at the AACC, noted that Dhall inherited a legacy of advocating for Asian and Asian-American students on campus from influential alumni like Don Nakanishi ’71, who is considered among the founders of Asian American Studies. During student demonstrations surrounding racism and discrimination last fall, Johnson said Dhall gave the AACC community the necessary space and support to start difficult conversations about race and ethnicity. Dhall is also an advocate for Asian American Studies on campus — in 2015, the AACC hosted Yale’s first Asian American Studies Conference. Dhall said she was inspired to do so because she sensed a resurgence of interest in Asian American Studies among students.
During her time, Dhall also invited a series of speakers to the center, including Nakanishi and former United States Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, and organized annual holiday parties and other events to cement a sense of identity and belonging among Asian-Americans on campus.
“Dean Dhall is an incredible advocate and mentor in our community,” said Peter Hwang ’18, co-moderator of the Asian American Students Alliance. “She would take the time to drop by various student-organized forums at the AACC, even during the hectic events of last fall when she would be running from meeting to meeting.”
Yale College Council President Peter Huang ’18 also said Dhall has been a mentor to him since he first stepped on campus for the Cultural Connections preorientation program.
Dhall’s reach extends beyond Yale’s immediate campus as well. The first Asian-American reunion among Yale alumni took place on campus in 2014. Planning for the reunion took two years, Dhall said, but she believed that these gatherings allowed current students to witness firsthand the ways they can continue to engage with the community after graduation.
“It’s the students,” Dhall said in response to a question about what motivated her throughout the years. “For me, the individual relationships with people who have allowed me into their lives have been the most profoundly impactful. It’s what matters the most. There’s no way I would’ve worked here [at the AACC] so long if it hadn’t been for the students.”
Dhall starts her position as Associate Dean at the School of Nursing on Sept. 15, stepping down from the AACC as well as her role as the director of the Mellon-Bouchet Fellowships Program. Even so, she will continue her duties at the AACC until fall break.