Courtesy of Catherine Yang

Less than five percent of Yale undergraduates identified as Asian American when Mary Li Hsu ’80 first stepped foot on campus. By the time she ended her seven-year tenure as assistant dean and director of the Asian American Cultural Center in 1999, that figure stood at 15 percent.

As an undergraduate, Hsu was an active member of the Asian American Students Association, known for spearheading the advocacy movement that successfully lobbied for a formalized complaint process for students facing racial or ethnic harassment. She also co-led an informal Bible study that offered a space on campus for Asian American students to grapple with both their racial and religious identities.

Hsu would go on to earn a master’s degree from Hunter College School of Social Work. She entered a life of community service and advocacy with a number of Asian American and faith-based organizations in New York’s Chinatown.

That service continued when Hsu returned to New Haven as the director of the Asian American Cultural Center, which was founded in 1981 in part due to her advocacy as an undergraduate. Hsu was the first AACC director to be appointed as a Yale College assistant dean, allowing her to more forcefully advocate for administrative support of Asian American students on campus. She is also remembered for her particular attention to students of first-generation backgrounds. Hsu would once again settle in New York and hold positions at both Borough of Manhattan Community College and Hunter College between 2001 and 2008.

Hsu, 63, passed away in her Manhattan home on Nov. 8 after battling neuroendocrine cancer. She is survived by four siblings and their spouses and children.

“Dean Hsu was devoted to helping students thrive and feel welcome at Yale,” wrote Yale College Dean Marvin Chun in a statement. “With their diverse backgrounds, Asian American and Asian international students bring excellence to our campus, and with wisdom and care, Dean Hsu mentored them to be leaders within and beyond the Yale community. Although she left Yale over 20 years ago, we are still benefiting from her contributions, not only to the Asian American Cultural Center but also to Yale.”

Hsu (right) and friend Catherine Yang in the AASA meeting room, spring of 1978. Photo courtesy of Catherine Yang.

Growing up in Seattle as the eldest daughter of a Northern Chinese immigrant family, Hsu was  “thoughtfully articulate” even as a young child, said her brother Ron Hsu.

“She would correct my English often, and was just so precise in her language,” he recalled.

Hsu’s parents worked various janitorial and cooking jobs before opening a highly-successful restaurant credited with helping to introduce pot stickers and Northern Chinese fare to the Pacific Northwest. Her father refused to let the children learn to cook, hoping that Hsu and her siblings would instead commit to their studies. 

Indeed she did. The family’s “gifted” child, Hsu would eventually ask to transfer from a majority-white high school, where she faced discrimination, to the more diverse Franklin High School. Hsu would finish her last two years of high school there, waking up at 5 a.m. each school day to take three buses from her home.

After matriculating to Yale in 1976, when the Asian American population was so small that nearly every Asian American student knew each other, Hsu quickly became involved with Asian American Students Association, holding various positions including education chair. She was consistently one of the organization’s most active members and participated in the infamous “shoe” protests that would lead administration to agree to establish a new Asian American cultural center.

Hsu was a devoted Christian and attended church services regularly during her time as an undergraduate. She frequently engaged with fellow Christians in campus groups like Black Church at Yale as well as a local New Haven church. She also formed connections with the local Asian American community and established an AASA-sponsored tutoring service for recently-immigrated children.

“Anytime you were on campus and you’d see her, you knew something good was going on and you had to get involved,” said Grant Din ’79, Hsu’s classmate and a fellow AASA member.

During her junior year, Hsu co-led an informal regular Bible study for Asian American students. Younger students recall the group as having a true sense of family on a campus where Asian Americans were an extremely small minority. 

Hsu reading her own poetry at an AASA talent show. Photo courtesy of Catherine Yang.

Outside of the Bible study, Hsu is remembered for doggedly pursuing the answers to large questions, using long discussions with friends to grapple with her Christian and cultural values in tandem. Hsu held a laser focus, classmate Katharine Hsiao ’82 said, on “finding the purest and truest of values that people might hold.”

As a senior, fueled by personal experiences of racial harassment on campus, Hsu worked with Robert Vance Jr. LAW ’82 to press then-University President Bartlett Giamatti to institute a formal complaint process for students facing racial or ethnic harassment.

After completing her degree in social work at Hunter College, Hsu defied her parent’s expectations by working as the youth director of the Chinese Methodist Center Corporation. Living on meager wages in a small Brooklyn apartment, Hsu became entrenched in advocacy and activism in the Chinatown community, acting as a mentor to children of recent immigrants and helping them apply to college. 

Her work, friends say, was intertwined with her deep devotion to Christianity. Her email signature for years included the phrase “in His grip.” 

In 1992, Hsu returned to New Haven to serve as the director of the Asian American Cultural Center, which officially formed just a year after she graduated. Hsu was also the first AACC director to be simultaneously appointed as a Yale College assistant dean, giving her a seat at administrative tables usually reserved for academics. 

For seven years, Hsu steered the Center at 295 Crown St., advising a burgeoning group of students and maintaining the ethnic counselors program. She also deftly navigated the new landscape of student activism on campus, as a crop of Asian American student groups, including Korean American Students at Yale, the Filipino club Kasama and South Asian Society, had been established after her graduation. 

When she became Dean, her students recalled, student organizations were grappling with the role and necessity of a pan-Asian advocacy group like AASA. Hsu pointed out that even as students could find communities in smaller organizations, Yale and other institutions would continue to treat Asian Americans as a single category.

“Her message to us was to find strength in [that] unity,” said Deron Quon ’94, former AASA co-chair. 

In the spring of 1997, Hsu also taught a Yale College seminar titled “Asian Americans and Political Membership.” After leaving Yale to return to New York, she would take on various administrative roles in higher education, continuing to advocate for students from first-generation and marginalized backgrounds. Over the next two decades, she would also remain active as an alumna, returning to campus to serve on panels and encouraging alumni to support current students. 

This past June, at the celebration of the AACC’s 40th anniversary, Quon and other alum announced a new endowment fund for the center in Hsu’s honor, the Dean Mary Li Hsu Discretionary Fund, which will support AACC activities and academic offerings in Asian American studies. Hsu attended virtually, tearing up at the many messages of gratitude shared by former classmates and mentees.

“Are you doing what you think is important?” Hsu asked current students who attended the event. “Is it going to help the world, even if it is just the little corner in which you live? You honor me by perpetuating this spirit of love and hope for greater justice and equity.”

Hsu’s legacy lives on at the AACC, current director Joliana Yee said, in the center’s mission of student-driven advocacy. Under Hsu’s deanship, Yale College’s Asian American population grew to 15 percent of undergraduates — and currently sits at 25.4 percent.

Hsu (left) with classmate Cyril Nishimoto in New York City Photo courtesy of Cyril Nishimoto.

She was a true New Yorker, her brother said, having lived in apartments in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Hsu eventually settled at the edge of Manhattan’s Chinatown, where she would comb local establishments for the best fresh vegetables, jiaozi and sponge cakes. Hsu was quoted last year in the New York Times delighting in the silken tofu and chives from a nearby mom and pop grocery store. 

Her wish, Hsu told friends before passing, was to be remembered as someone who loved beauty. Living in New York, she would frequent the opera, Henri Matisse exhibits and Shakespeare events at Wave Hill Public Garden. She tastefully designed her apartment with a garden of lush foliage in her living room and a pair of bright purple vintage couches.

Like her mother, Hsu was a fantastic cook known for crafting simple and healthy Chinese dishes, usually without a recipe and loaded with lots of garlic. She would host single women from her church for weekly meals, and soon the “mother hen” was serving up feasts to more than 30 guests in her apartment.

She was generous and gave all she had, friends recall — except when it came to her affection for dark chocolate.

In lieu of flowers, the Hsu family requests that donations be made to the Dean Mary Li Hsu Discretionary Fund or to the Chinatown Manpower Project.

Correction, Nov. 16: This article has been corrected with information about the tutoring services Hsu started as well as the correct name of her fellow advocate of the formal complaint process for racial or ethnic harassment.

Hsu in New York City, June of 2020. Photo Courtesy of Catherine Yang.

Isaac Yu was the News' managing editor. He covered transportation and faculty as a reporter and laid out the front page of the weekly print edition. He co-founded the News' Audience desk, which oversees social media and the newsletter. He was a leader of the News' Asian American and low-income affinity groups. Hailing from Garland, Texas, Isaac is a Berkeley College junior majoring in American Studies.