Y.K. Wong arrived at the port of San Francisco from Guangdong, China, on Nov. 9, 1902. Thirteen years later, he enrolled as one of the first Asian American students at UF.
Wong attended UF during a period marked by anti-Chinese sentiment across the U.S. Intolerance towards Chinese Americans resulted in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred the immigration of Chinese laborers to the U.S. and made it significantly harder for Chinese students to study at American universities.
Despite widespread prejudice, Wong graduated from UF with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and was held in high regard by his peers. On May 26, 1916, The Alligator reported that Wong presented a paper to the Agricultural Club “on ‘The Agriculture of China,’ which he read to the enjoyment of all.”
Wong attended UF when the total number of Asian students remained in the single digits. Over a century later, UF is home to nearly 5,500 AAPI students, an Asian American student union, and an Asian American studies minor.
UF alumnus Phillip Cheng examined Wong in the history of Asian American UF students in his 2019 thesis.
The research for his thesis began with a question.
“If I was a brand new student at UF [walking] down the halls of the Reitz Union or some other high traffic area, and I saw images of Asian American students on the walls from the 1900s, from the ‘30s, from the ‘40s … how would that then impact my own ability to connect to the institution?” Cheng said.
When Cheng sat down with an adviser, he realized the question could only be answered with further research.
“I can't answer this question because there aren't actual photos of Asian students on the walls. So, why don't I go and find those students and put them on the walls?” Cheng said.
Cheng’s research led him from Smathers Library to the National Archives in San Bruno, California. There, Cheng found documentation of Wong and another Chinese student who attended UF in the early 20th century, L.B. Tan.
Like Wong, Tan was a student in the College of Agriculture and was held in high esteem by his peers for teaching fellow students about China’s fight for democracy, according to The Alligator in 1921.
Tan was highly regarded not only by his peers but also by UF president A.A. Murphree, who served from 1909 to 1927.
A series of letters in the UF Archives reveals what Cheng describes as a “sincere and close relationship” between Tan and the university president. In his letters, Murphree refers to Tan as a “bright young man” and “gifted as a public speaker.”
Wong and Tan were anomalies in the history of Asian American university students in the Exclusion Era, Cheng said.
“While in most parts of the country, Chinese students were experiencing a lot of discrimination, these students at UF were not,” Cheng said.
Cheng, a Stanford University graduate admissions systems analyst, is still invested in the Asian American history of the UF student body, he said.
“It's still my goal to get people on the walls, physically and metaphorically speaking,” Cheng said.
Cheng compares UF to other universities that give recognition to their first Chinese students such as renaming dorms after them, he said.
“I don't think that we're anywhere close to that at UF,” Cheng said.
Cheng is not alone in his advocacy for Asian American visibility on campus.
In the early 1990s, the fight for Asian American resources at the university started. At the forefront of the fight was the initiative to create a single Asian student union to represent the entire Asian student body, according to the Asian Pacific Islander Desi Affairs office.
Previously, individual Asian groups had created their own organizations to celebrate, document and advocate for their heritage, including the Chinese American Student Association in 1948, the Vietnamese Student Organization in 1973 and the Indian Student Association and Filipino Student Association in the 1980s.
Requests for an Asian student union were initially denied by the university in 1992.
“Minority Affairs dean Willie Robinson said Asian students need to be more aggressive when they want something accomplished,” The Alligator wrote.
That same year, Volunteers for International Student Affairs and Reitz Union Program Office sponsored the first Asian Kaleidoscope Month which gave students an opportunity to celebrate Asian culture and discuss social issues.
In 1993, the Asian Student Union, known today as the Asian American Student Union, was officially formed. Today, the AASU unifies the Chinese American Student Association, Filipino Student Association, Korean Undergraduate Student Association, Vietnamese Student Organization and Health Educated Asian Leaders.
Since its creation, the AASU has advocated for social and political concerns. In 2003, the AASU held a demonstration in Turlington Plaza advocating for an Institute of Asian and Asian American Cultures at the university.
While UF administration did not fulfill the request for an Institute of Asian and Asian American Cultures, it has supported other initiatives to help the AAPI student body.
In 2005, the Dean of Students office announced it would hire a director of multicultural affairs and a graduate assistant for Asian and Pacific affairs, but not a director of Asian American Affairs. The graduate assistant for Asian and Pacific affairs position was held by Natalia Leal in 2005, Yuko Fujino from 2006 to 2007 and Taketo Nakao from 2007 to 2011.
Leah Villanueva became the first APIA director at UF in 2011. As APIA director, Villanueva took a loud stance against AAPI discrimination.
“Every time you’re silent about being mistreated, it gives the message that it’s OK to be discriminated,” Villanueva told Sparks Magazine. “So say it. Never doubt yourself.”
In 2010, the Asian Pacific Islander American Resource Room was established in Peabody Hall. The office later relocated to the Reitz Union in 2016 and was renamed to the Asian Pacific Islander Desi Affairs office in 2020.
The long history of Asian American activism has not gone unnoticed by UF students. The Asian American History Project, a part of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Project, records the experiences of Asian American students and faculty at UF.
The project focused on the history of Asian American student activism at UF but shifted focus to Filipino American UF students when Othelia Jumapao, a co-founder of the Asian American History Project was writing her thesis.
“Asian American narratives aren’t really spotlighted or put in the center and because we see that lack of representation, sometimes we internalize it,” Jumapao said at a talk. “We’re trying to show them that their narratives matter.”
The Asian American History Project is not the only program educating UF students about Asian American history. The Asian American Studies certificate was introduced in 2004 and later became a minor in 2013.
Malini Johar Schueller, a professor for the department of English, has presided over the AAS minor as undergraduate coordinator since its introduction into the university curriculum.
“It’s a minor for everybody, Schueller said. “Asian American history is not taught enough.”
Outside the classroom, student leaders have played a role in UF’s Asian American history.
In 2011, Anthony Reynolds became the first Asian student body president.
In February, Joaquin Rafaele Marcelino founded the Pan-Asian Caucus after noticing common concerns amongst members of AAPID student organizations.
“They just are not comfortable nor do they see [student government] being on their side a lot of the time,” Marcelino said.
The Pan-Asian Caucus is dedicated to advocating for the “representation, advocacy and
execution of the interests of the Asian, Pacific Islander, Desi and Middle Eastern
Population at the University of Florida,” according to the student government website.
The caucus has proposed the establishment of an AAPID Institute at UF, similar to the Institute of Black Culture and La Casita.
“These [changes] will not come to be overnight, and thus I am committed to these initiatives as long as I hold office and am a student at UF,” Marcelino said.
Contact Garrett at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @garrettshanley.
Garrett Shanley is a UF third-year journalism and history major and The Alligator's Summer 2023 university administration reporter. In his free time, Garrett can be found watching Wong Kar-Wai films and brooding.