By Sophie Kim, Campus Vote Project Student Advisory Board Member
Sophie Kim is a Junior at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. As the AAPI Affinity Member on the Campus Vote Project Student Advisory Board, she is researching the impact civic engagement has on the AAPI community. Through first-person interviews with AAPI student leaders, and by drawing on her own personal experience as a Korean American immigrant, she hopes to bring awareness to the crucial work and contributions of Asian American and Pacific Islander students in the student voting and activism space.
Growing up in Northern Virginia as a Korean American immigrant, we did not speak about politics at home.
My parents had immigrated to the United States when I was two years old, and my father became a naturalized citizen when I was eleven. I remember asking him if he would start voting now. He said, “No, there was no need.” My mother, on the other hand, had no interest in becoming a naturalized citizen, saying she “would always be Korean.”
As for myself, I often found myself feeling like an eternal outsider to both worlds I found myself living in. This feeling of disconnect from one’s culture of origin is not uncommon in children of immigrants.
“Being Asian American is a big part of my identity, but I don’t feel too connected to my culture, as I grew up here. I’m working on learning more about Chinese culture and feeling more connected to my community through this work,” said Olivia Zhang, a 17-year-old Chinese American high school student.
As an Indian-American, Arizona State University grad Anusha Natarajan said even connecting to her Asian heritage is difficult. “I do identify as Asian American, as my parents immigrated from India. This label can be conflicting at times, as people generally think East Asian when they hear ‘Asian American,’” she said.
“It goes to show just how diverse the Asian American label is, and how many groups inside that umbrella term can feel invisible,” she said.
Although many Americans say their political attitudes are influenced by their parents, this was never my experience. Nor is it the experience of other AAPI immigrant families.
“Asian Americans are not apathetic,” Zhang told me. Many are not eligible to vote due to limited English proficiency, underrepresentation and lack of outreach to their communities, and lack of citizenship.
“Many of these things,” Zhang said, “can be remedied with change.”
AAPI communities have proven that they are ready to create that change themselves. Asian American and Pacific Islanders broke voter turnout records in 2020. Nearly 60% of Asian Americans and over 55% of Native Islanders cast their ballot, the highest increases for any racial group in the country. In comparison, American voter turnout among all voting-age citizens was 62.8%.
“There is this notion in Asian American immigrant families that we should just be grateful to be here,” Diana Kim, a Korean American student at William & Mary said. “However, I think people should know that we, as Asian Americans, are contributing members of American society and we are in a position to demand better.”
These thoughtful responses got me thinking more about my own family. If there had been a Korean-American candidate running for office, would my father have been more inclined to vote? If politicians made more of an effort to reach out to Asian communities with translated brochures and flyers, would my mother be more aware and interested in local politics? Is it possible that it’s not Asian Americans’ fault that they are excluded and uninvolved in American politics?
Politics were not even very important to me personally until college. In my first semester at a local community college, I joined Campus Vote Project as a Democracy Fellow after applying on a whim. I will admit I had no great passion for political activism or voting at the time, but slowly I began to truly understand and appreciate the significance of this work, especially after I transferred to the College of William and Mary the next semester and started working with the university’s Voter Engagement Committee (VEC).
For the last year, I have also represented CVP as the AAPI Affinity Representative on the CVP’s Student Advisory Board, and have been given the opportunity to not only learn more about civic engagement, but explore my Asian American identity in conjunction with that work.
I am not alone in this journey of self-exploration through civic engagement. Anusha, knowing how important outreach to overlooked AAPI minorities is, has worked with OCA- Asian Pacific American Advocates, to encourage underrepresented communities, such as Laotians and Cambodians, to vote.
Kim has advocated locally to include Asian American history into Virginia’s K-12 curriculum. “Non-western, non-white history is left out of education far too often,” she told me. “Learning about Asian American history is what personally inspired me to start doing this work- and I hope it has a similar impact on other young Asian Americans.”
Zhang’s foray into AAPI activism took me by surprise. She shared that she had seen a Slack message that I sent in the Student Voting Network about an upcoming meeting about Asian American advocacy with Asian Youth Act and APIAVote and decided to join. This piqued her interest in Asian American activism, and she later secured an internship with APIAVote, and is now working to inform and empower AAPI communities!
Hearing about the amazing, impactful accomplishments of my peers was so inspiring and uplifting. It’s such a privilege and honor to work amongst such powerful and passionate people, and it reinforced how important my work in this space is. Not only have I been able to create meaningful change in the AAPI community, but it’s also helped me understand and appreciate my Asian American identity.
Learning about Asian American history and how hard the AAPI community has worked in the past to gain the citizen rights we take for granted today, greatly changed the way I view the Asian American community. We are not a silent community, and we deserve to have a voice and representation in American politics. I’m so proud to be part of the trailblazing, influential, and resilient Asian American community, and I will continue working to spread awareness so that the rest of America sees us the same way.
If you’re reading this and you feel the same way, there are so many ways to get involved!
Look up on the languages that your local ballot/voter information is offered in
Become involved with your local community! Sign up for their mailing lists and stay informed on current happenings
Educate yourself and others on Asian American history
Watch documentaries or read up on famous AAPI activists: Grace Lee Boggs, Fred Korematsu, Yuri Kochiyama, etc
Be an ally for Asian Americans and other minorities when you see or hear of injustice. Use your voice to advocate for equality and change