Following years of Asian student advocacy and the University’s public commitment to advancing racial justice, students can expect an Asian affinity space to open this fall. 

The space is expected to temporarily reside on the first floor of the Alumni Memorial University Center (AMUC), where all other affinity spaces are located, said Assistant Vice President of Campus Life Dona Yarbrough. In fall 2023, all affinity spaces will relocate to the third floor of Cox Hall.

The Asian affinity space will replace Centro Latinx’s room in the AMUC and Centro Latinx will move into the old Kaplan Test Prep room across the hall.

The creation of the space coincides with the renovations to existing affinity spaces such as Centro Latinx and the Emory Black Student Union promised by University President Gregory L. Fenves in an August 2020 letter to the community. While existing spaces are being revamped, the Asian affinity space is a new addition to campus.

Yarbrough added that each affinity space will be “refreshed” by fall 2021 and completely renovated by fall 2023. This includes new color palettes, paint, furniture, carpeting and decorations for each room while the renovation entails transferring the spaces from the AMUC to Cox Hall. 

“Hopefully the color schemes, most of the furniture and things will be able to move into Cox Hall so that it won’t be like we’re starting from scratch,” Yarbrough said. “We really didn’t want to shortchange students who are here in the interim by not refreshing those spaces, and a lot of them really do need new furniture [and] carpet.”

Yarbrough said Cox Hall is a better location for affinity spaces because there is more natural light and space for student support staff offices, which are currently located in the Emory Student Center. 

Affinity spaces in the Alumni Memorial University Center will receive new color schemes and furnishings by fall 2021 and transition to the third floor of Cox Hall by fall 2023. (Derrick Tran, Staff)

Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Activists (APIDAA) Chief of Staff Stephanie Zhang (22C) expressed appreciation for the move to Cox Hall, noting “anything beats the basement of the AMUC because … there is no light in the basement, it floods a lot and there’s roaches in the bathroom.”

There are two more meetings between administrators and students before the AMUC refresh completes and Campus Life starts planning meetings for the Cox Hall renovations. Yarbrough said that in the final two meetings, students will finalize the color palettes and give feedback on finishes and fabrics for their respective affinity space. 

“We’re looking for places that are really affirming of student identities, that are welcoming, that are functional and that are unique to each student group,” Yarbrough noted. 

In his Aug. 13 letter, Fenves said it’s “crucial that the university leadership not simply put the burden of responsibility on you — including or especially those from Black, Latinx, Asian, Native and Indigenous communities, among others” to make the necessary strides in racial justice at Emory. 

Yet Zhang said she feels as if she’s “forcing her way into the administration’s attention” and taking on another job in advocating for Asian students on campus. 

“The amount of extra labor that the University puts on its student activists is actually pretty stressful,” Zhang said. “At least for me, since I’ve been pretty vocal about the needs of Asian students and what the University is lacking, it feels like a lot of admin are like, ‘Oh Stephanie, will you be on this committee or will you help us figure out these needs, and I’m like, ‘Sis, does it look like I’m getting paid for this?’”

Although Zhang feels progress has been made, she believes the road to an Asian affinity space was arduous. Asian students first advocated for the creation of an Asian affinity space in 2018, but the University did little to entertain the idea, Zhang said. 

“I think the previous assumption from the administration has been that because there is such a large population of Asians and visually they look so well represented, they don’t really need a lot of support,” Zhang explained.

However, Yarbrough said that when students proposed the Asian affinity space to administrators, “there was never a question of ‘should we have this space,’ it was more a question of when and how.”

Former APIDAA Presidents and Senior Advisory Board Members Alice Zheng (21C) and Julia Zhong (21C) said the organization began advocating for an Asian affinity space by creating a task force and encouraging students who identified as APIDAA individuals to join. 

By 2019, the University began to take a more active role in Asian advocacy efforts and established meetings once or twice per semester with students about the space.

“For a long time we thought we were advocating into a black hole, like we had no idea that any of this would actually happen,” Zheng said. “But in the end, we’re just super grateful that somebody in the administration saw this was important and decided to give us some time and space.”

Zhang attributed this administrative shift in Asian student rhetoric to changes in University leadership and the racial reckoning over the summer. 

“With the onboarding of the new president of Emory and with the advocacy that a lot of Black and Latinx student organizations have done during the Black Lives Matter stuff … I think it’s a culmination of a really close allyship with other student communities at Emory and long-standing activism within the Asian community itself,” Zhang explained. 

Yarbrough said the arrival of Vice President and Dean of Campus Life Enku Gelaye in 2019 facilitated the creation of the Asian affinity space. 

“She was really interested in immediately getting to a place where we could include a space for APIDAA students, who are obviously a large population of students on campus who had never had an identity space before,” Yarbrough said.

Zhang explained that an Asian affinity space is especially important because it will allow Asian organizations to plan “culturally significant” food-based programs.

“The fact that we have to have a lot of our events in freshman halls because that’s where kitchens are … is really frustrating,” Zhang said. 

For Zhong, an Asian affinity space will provide a safe space for Asian students to connect and share their perspectives without having non-Asian people invalidating their experiences. 

“When I first came to Emory, I knew I wanted to get involved with the Asian community and do Asian advocacy work, but … I didn’t know where to go for that,” Zhong reflected. “If I had this space … that provided resources, a community space or programming for Asian students, I would have been able to find a community more easily and feel like I had a place to be.” 

Despite multiple years of Asian American advocacy placing additional burdens on students, Zhang said she would never take back all of the work and effort put into creating the Asian affinity space.

“I think it’s fruitful because with all of these concrete spaces being put in place … it leaves an institutional memory for Asian American activists and Asian American students,” Zhang said. “By creating this memory … it puts pressure on the University to continue to recognize the needs of Asian students.”