At Stanford GSB, An Asian Heritage Month Fraught With Meaning

Stanford GSB students clockwise from top left: Sravya Vishnubhatla, James Fong, Julia Park, and Viet Nguyen.

May — Asian-American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month — has always been an important time at Stanford Graduate School of Business, a school with a constant significant proportion of MBA students of Asian descent, including nearly a quarter of the latest cohort.

But this year, amid a pandemic and growing awareness of anti-Asian violence both across the United States and locally in the San Francisco Bay Area, AAPI Heritage Month has taken on even greater import for Stanford students.

“It really has been a bit of an awakening,” says James Fong, co-president and CFO of Stanford’s Asia Business Student Association, who is pursuing a joint MBA-MS degree in Environment and Resources.

“It’s definitely been very top of mind, at least for me and for some of my other classmates,” says Sravya Vishnubhatla, ABSA co-president.

“Asian-American folks have always been aware of the racism,” says Viet Nguyen, a Knight-Hennessey Scholar. “I just think this year it’s gotten a lot more press and a lot more attention.”


Sravya Vishnubhatla

Anti-Asian violence and harassment are certainly getting more attention. According to a study by the nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate, there were 6,603 reports of violence, harassment, or other incidents against people of Asian descent across the U.S. between March 19, 2020 and March 31, 2021 — however, the total number of incidents increased dramatically, from 3,795 to 6,603, in March 2021 alone. In the San Francisco Bay Area where Stanford is located, high-profile incidents — muggings, beatings, stabbings, and worse — seem to occur daily.

Lacking the ability to meet in-person during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Stanford’s business students have responded this month by directing their energies toward a slate of mostly virtual events designed to highlight the contributions and challenges of the AAPI community. It’s as much about strengthening a virtual community was it is about reaching out to allies, Sravya Vishnubhatla says.

“I think what’s been the most difficult part about it happening all during Covid is that there is no real way for folks to feel that in-person support and kind of create that kind of programming,” she says. “And so we’ve been talking to folks to figure out how can we facilitate a safe space, even if it is virtual, for folks to be able to share their thoughts, feelings, support, etc.”

That includes The Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month of Learning Calendar, an online learning resource that spotlights such figures as the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye; highlights the struggle for equal representation and rights in the transgender, nonbinary, gender fluid, and queer AAPI community; and puts in perspective the shootings of six Asian women in Atlanta in March, among many other things. “We encourage individuals to take 15 minutes each day to learn about the contributions and challenges of the AAPI community, reflect on their own experiences, and take a new action based on what they’ve learned,” GSB states. “Then share more broadly with their networks.”

Another project, ABSA Stories, puts the spotlight on some of the leading student voices in Stanford’s AAPI community. Over the course of the month, ABSA is asking students to reflect on their identities and what being Asian means to them. Vishnubhatla, who curated the stories as p[art of her role in spearheading AAPI month programming, says the stories offer “a lens to some of my classmates that otherwise maybe would just never come up. I’m hoping the rest of the community can also kind of share in that experience.”


ABSA’s mission is “to unite all Stanford GSB students who are from Asia, of Asian descent, and/or interested in Asia from a cultural or business perspective under a common organization.” The group promotes “social integration” and rewiring Asian stereotypes to “bridge the communication gap between Asians and the broader class, and help students explore Asia-related career opportunities.” Vishnubhatla says the last year has presented major challenges to that mission.

We’ve definitely had to be creative in coming up with ways to build community, when we are not allowed to meet in person,” she says. “So we are doing ABSA Stories sort of initiatives, where folks are sharing their experiences of what it’s like to be an Asian American, that of course is distributed electronically. We’ve been doing things like Instagram takeovers — really engaging the rest of the community outside of the Asian-American community. We did a food giveaway.”

It’s about reaching those who are missing community, and reaching out to those who are outside it.

I think what our class in particular has been hearing is that people are really looking for a sense of that cultural community that they just haven’t been able to foster so far,” Vishnubhatla says. “And I think that’s why a lot of people opt-in to joining the organization in the first place. So we are definitely hoping for a sense of closeness, heritage, culture, as well as I think grounding ourselves in the recent events, as well as invigorating and energizing looking forward. I think we’re hoping for just a lot of positive energy coming out of this.

“For me it’s always been very interesting, as an Indian American thinking about AAPI month, just because being Asian can mean so many different things, just given how broad the area geographically is. So I have been really taking the opportunity to learn more about my East Asian classmates. I’ve been taking the opportunity to really just reflect on my own culture and heritage. And I think both of those, both the external and the internal, have been really rewarding.”


A native of Sarasota, Florida, James Fong grew up in a largely White community and did not see a lot of prejudice against those of Asian descent. “And so I wasn’t as in touch with all of these attacks that had happened in the past,” he says. “But I think being in a nationalist community here and seeing how emotional of a reaction my classmates — MBA2’s and MBA1’s — have shown to everything that has gone on, I am now much more aware that this happens and I definitely empathize a lot more with it. And I think that was definitely part of why I wanted to be very involved with this community.”

Fong says it has been refreshing to see how much just communication there has been about AAPI Heritage Month.

“I never had, even in work, known that there was an AAPI Heritage Month and it is something I’ve learned to celebrate,” he tells P&Q. “And the fact that everyone from the president of the university down to the dean of the business school has sent out messages, encouraging the broader population to recognize that this is going on and that they are pointing to both the violence that is happening, as well as the greater alumni and other achievements that this community has achieved, is really impressive to me.”

Julia Park, an MBA student in the Class of 2022, was born in Seoul, South Korea before coming to the U.S. as a child. Now co-president of ABSA, she has been involved in planning a slate of AAPI Month activities ranging from the meaningful to the fun, including food giveaways, panels, social media takeovers, and the creation of custom Zoom virtual backgrounds.

She sees AAPI month as a special opportunity for Asian stories to be in the spotlight.

“Although being Korean and being Asian are foundational elements to my identity, before the GSB I rarely spoke to peers or colleagues about what that has meant to me,” Park says. “Many, if not most, Asians have the experience of their culture and race being associated with being different, ‘uncool,’ etc. Media representation of Asians also fueled this, across movies, shows, and artists. Only recently have we started to see a diverse range of Asian voices and stories, and I’m so excited for the generation that will grow up with this exposure.

“AAPI month builds on top of this momentum, and it provides us with an opportunity to highlight the rich history and influence that Asians have had in this country.”

What does Park hope others take away from AAPI Heritage Month?

“Celebrate AAPI in any way you choose,” she says. “I love my boba just as much as the next person! But remember that it’s more than just a cultural celebration, especially in light of recent events.”


Viet Nguyen, a Bay Area native whose first year in the Stanford MBA program is just concluding, says racism has always been a reality for those of Asian Descent. “I just think this year it’s gotten a lot more press and a lot more attention,” he adds — and that’s a good thing. “I think it’s been a really good way for us to promote the conversation even further and think about what work needs to be done, even beyond just conversations, but in concrete action.”

Born in Mountain View and raised there and in San Jose, Nguyen’s background is in education. He taught English abroad in South Korea and then worked in non-profit consulting; before GSB he ran a nonprofit advocacy group for first-generation low-income students, and he plans to stay in the education space, perhaps in edtech or education policy. He sees AAPI Heritage Month as an opportunity to highlight and celebrate the nuances of Asian-American identity that often get erased.

“And so one of the things that we’re trying to do this year is think about, How do we show the South Asian identity? How do we show the Southeast Asian identity? How do we think about both the international experience and the domestic Asian-American experience?” Nguyen tells P&Q. “And so that’s what we’ve been working on — on campus, both showcasing that diversity, but also engaging in the critical dialogue in the broader scheme of the Asian-American hate crimes that have been happening and the larger context of racial equity in the United States.”

For him, the most important conversation concerning AAPI identity happens at the intersection of class and race. Stanford, he says, is leading that conversation.

“Especially when we’re talking about disaggregating Asian-American data and increasing representation, you do need to think about class issues,” he says. “And I think that Stanford’s way of doing financial aid and the ways in which they’re promoting scholarships and fellowships to increase socioeconomic diversity has very large implications on both the disaggregation of Asian Americans that come to the GSB, but also their experiences once they get here.”


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