Despite comparable membership sizes, well-established East Asian groups at Columbia—serving Japanese, Chinese, and Korean students—receive thousands of dollars more in annual funding than Southeast Asian groups, according to funding data obtained by Spectator.
Columbia Japan Society, Chinese Students Club, and Korean Students Association—all East Asian cultural organizations—are some of the oldest, most well-known Asian student groups on campus. Each receives allocations far larger than those given to Southeast Asian groups, such as Vietnamese Students Association and Southeast Asian League. For instance, KSA was founded nearly 30 years ago, while SEAL was founded in 2004. CSC, the oldest of the East Asian groups, is 89 years old.
For the 2017-18 school year, the Activities Board at Columbia—a student-run governing body tasked with allocating funding to student groups annually—allocated $4,665.99 for CJS, $7,185 for CSC, and $8,245 for KSA. VSA, on the other hand, received $795. SEAL received $171.
These allocations do not scale with club membership numbers. For example, CJS has approximately 100 members, while VSA has 140. In fact, ABC mainly considers the success of past programming when determining allocations, rather than just the size of a club’s general body, according to ABC President Madie Lee, CC ’18.
Southeast Asian students are thereby left with fewer events and cultural outlets on campus—the events held yearly by groups like KSA and CSC have since evolved into traditions on campus and are subsequently embedded into the clubs’ allocations.
The process of allocating funds for cultural organizations is cyclical, favoring older student groups with traditionally large allocations while leaving new groups with few options to increase their own, leaders from both East Asian and Southeast Asian groups acknowledged. Governing boards allocate money based on the success of the previous year’s events, allowing groups to build on past funding incrementally.
As a result, the younger Southeast Asian groups are at a disadvantage for funding. Southeast Asian students expressed that, without the ability to throw well-funded cultural events from year to year, their identities on campus are frequently overshadowed by those of East Asian students.
“Especially being Southeast Asian, there’s a lot of less general knowledge about what that means,” Alexia Le, CC ’18 and senior adviser for the Vietnamese Students Association, said. “People automatically assume I’m Chinese or Korean, so general ignorance of my identity is probably the thing that I face the most.”
Southeast Asian group leaders said that, with larger allocations, they would be able to fund events on par with those of East Asian groups.
“CSC had that Night Market thing. … It’s much more publicized, and much bigger than what we hold,” Vicky Wong, CC ’20 and president of the Southeast Asian League, said. “Events held by, for example, Southeast Asian clubs like VSA or SEAL, are much less prominent. ... It tends to be much more in the shadows and less well known.”
These large allocations allow established groups to hold far-reaching, popular events on an annual basis. Moreover, these large events give the clubs publicity and reach among the student body. CSC’s Night Market on Low Steps, for example, draws over 2,000 students each fall.
Such events allow larger clubs to fulfill a central mission of identity-based groups: the preservation of their culture by creating awareness within the community. Due to smaller allocations and lack of established traditions, clubs like VSA and SEAL are less able to achieve this mission.
“It’s kind of our job to make our presence known, and it’s what we’re trying to do,” Wong said. “I’m proud to be Southeast Asian. … What unites us is that we’re proud of it, of where we’re from, and possessing the identity of Southeast Asia. We want to show people why exactly we are like that.”
The Asian student community, which makes up 17 percent of Columbia’s undergraduate population, is comprised of identities from around the world. To some Southeast Asian students, not being able to assert their own identities has led to them being forced under the umbrella term “Asian.”
Collaboration among the various Asian groups is one way that different Asian identities can support each other and combat uneven funding. Cosponsorship of other groups’ events—which can involve sharing of funds, helping with publicity, and attending the events themselves—strengthens bonds within the greater Asian community while also promoting individual identities.
“That’s nice because it’s showing support, it’s still not a lot, but it’s showing support,” Nicholas Lombardo, CC ’20, vice president of CJS, said. “It’s feeling this kind of responsibility to other groups on campus and enabling … that event to happen, or enabling their group to do something.”
But most existing cosponsorships take place between large, well-financed groups, to the exclusion of smaller groups.
“In the past, we’ve always given each other cosponsorships,” Isabelle Lee, BC ’19 and president of the Asian American Alliance, said, referring to the large Asian groups like KSA, CSC, CJS, and AAA. “It’s with groups that already have money.”
These limitations in funding and cosponsorship contribute to a feeling among Southeast Asian identities of being eclipsed by East Asians in the larger community. But Asian student leaders on both sides seem divided on how to address the general disunity among East and Southeast Asians on campus. While some see the potential for mutual empowerment and unity among Asian groups, others see a threat to voices already overshadowed.
“We do have to find some way to come together,” Le said, “and try to have some sort of united front to get issues that we care about taken care of. … But, of course, that comes with the dangers of erasing the more fringe, less common Asian-American identities.”
Larger East Asian groups also seem unsure how to respond to the imbalance of funding and the threat they might pose by obscuring underrepresented identities.
“Our mission statement, our goal, is to spread Chinese culture,” Jess Qu, SEAS ’19 and president of the Chinese Students Club, said. “So I think it’s a bit hard for us to un-eclipse, because we’re just sharing our own aspect of things.”
Recognizing the common problems that can be solved together would be a step in the right direction, according to some student leaders. Many call for increased discourse among the various Asian groups, including and beyond cosponsorship, in order to empower every identity on campus.
“I think the first step is talking about it,” Le said. “Just by talking about it we’re opening dialogue.”