By Kumudha Kumarachandran
It had been over three years since the last time I stepped foot into the Adele Stamp Student Union at the University of Maryland College Park. Last month, Razia and I both had the pleasure of returning to Stamp as alums to speak at the at Asian American Student Union’s FUEL Conference. FUEL stands for forging, understanding, empowering, and leading. It is a conference put together by students but with workshops put on by members of the community who work in Asian American advocacy organizations. The opportunity to speak at FUEL was particularly exciting for me because just a few years ago I served on the Asian American Student Union (AASU) Executive Board.
One of the best parts of going to speak at FUEL for me was getting to see how much everything had changed in just a few years. When I served on the AASU Board, I remember spending countless hours in the early part of the fall semester scurrying around with my fellow board members to make sure every part of the conference would go smoothly. I always felt especially strong about FUEL because it focused primarily on educating ourselves about Asian American issues through the surrounding community. There wasn’t a FUEL conference that I went to where I didn’t leave without learning something new and feeling empowered to make a difference.
Being on the speaker side of the conference this year gave me a whole new look at FUEL. The first thing I noticed was a lack in South Asian participation at the conference. This was something that I recall struggling with when I was on the board. It has always been frustrating to me that the general notion even today is that Asian American is only inclusive of East Asians. Luckily, back then there were three South Asian members on the board (including the President) as well as a South Asian adviser in order to insure this was a priority. But on that note, I did notice a good deal of diversity with non-Asian American participants, which made me hopeful that there is more solidarity across campus now.
The other thing I noticed was how much easier it was for students to open up in small group dialogues. I remember back in the day, I would sometimes feel sorry for the workshop leaders as they struggled to get students to talk and start up a dialogue. When students were first filing in, they tried to sit outside of the circle and it was hard to get them to move into a larger group, so I figured my job would be equally as hard as it was back then. But as we began going over discussion questions, I found that the students were able to open to each other and talk about many of their experiences with mental health in their families. I was in awe of how open they were with one in another, and how one participant was even fighting back tears after sharing with her small group. A student in my circle commented that it was much easier to open up after Razia and I had shared our own personal experiences. That is definitely something I will take away from the experience as a speaker.
After the conference, I met up with one of my fellow executive board members from 2009, who is now teaching an Asian American Studies course at UMCP. It was fun to reminisce with her about old days and how things have changed with the students today. The event was definitely smaller than it used to be, but at the heart of it there will still students trying to create change and empower new leaders and I hope that is something that will never go away.