As an officer of the Asian Students Association (ASA), Thuymi Phung ’23 has experience in how she and others can help incubate diversity and inclusion at Southwestern. It’s been one of the many benefits of attending a liberal-arts university that pushes students to explore social norms and strives toward racial and ethnic inclusion. 

The ASA is part of Southwestern’s Coalition for Diversity and Social Justice (CDSJ), whose mission is to encourage its member student organizations to hold the community up to a higher standard of inclusivity and to celebrate diversity while providing a forum for discussion by oppressed individuals or groups. ASA aims to spread cultural awareness; provide a safe space to support Asian, Pacific Islander, and Desi American students; and share in fun and entertaining activities that bring the community together.

Phung, ASA’s historian, believes that those activities are especially important given this year’s events. “I think especially in this time now, with the media’s coverage of COVID-19 related to China, the Trump administration, and all minorities being impacted right now, our goal with SU is that we’re trying to create a safe community, especially for Asian students that may have been affected by this pandemic negatively,” she says. “Just having the space to talk about what’s going on in the world—or not even to talk about it—it’s about getting through it together. Our goal for this year is not to have politically charged meetings but instead taking a break from the world for a little while. Right now, we’re trying to have events that are about learning art or holidays, because despite what’s going on around the world, life is still going on.”

Finding your place

Phung joined the organization her first year of college. After researching the school’s demographics, she realized there wasn’t much diversity in terms of ethnic ratio and makeup, so she actively reached out to ASA to join the community and its efforts to grow and show awareness for others like her. “I was really interested in finding an organization where I can at least find people that I can connect to and are like me. Obviously, everyone has different cultures and backgrounds, but at least in some way, we have a similar experience. I was really happy with what I found. All of my close friends I met through there, and [I] even ended up living with them,” she laughs. 

ASA became the perfect place for Phung as she assimilated into Southwestern Thuymi Phung (Left) Thuymi Phung (Left) culture, meeting students—eventual close friends and even closer roommates—and other organization leaders from CDSJ who would encourage her to become an officer for ASA, something that put Phung’s leadership skills and ambitious creativity to work. “It really helped me get grounded at Southwestern,” she says excitedly. “Because then I knew all [the] things that were happening and I had some part in it.” Phung found her place in Southwestern’s community and was already on her way to encouraging others to join the fun, including movie screenings, boba outings, and Asian holiday gatherings. “Everyone likes eating, playing games, and maybe listening to a couple of stories,” she explains. “So it is basically just inviting people to come and do those things with us.” It’s that welcoming environment that drew Phung to Southwestern in the first place: Everyone is embraced. 

As an organization, they’ve tried hard not to be considered exclusive to nonminority groups. ASA has been known as an open and friendly environment that is open to anyone willing to maintain their values. “It’s not a matter of if they’re Asian or not,” Phung shares. “ASA is just the label or the group organizing it; it doesn’t really define what’s going on or who’s coming in or not.”

That isn’t to say that Thuymi herself hasn’t found a particular welcomingness specific to her experiences as a Vietnamese American. Phung says, “For me, it’s been a lot of fun because I’ve been able to talk to others about the fact [that] dishwashers are used as a dying machine or we have plastic covers for remotes. Or eating food—food is the most related, I think. ‘Oh, you eat this? I do, too!’, or ‘Your parents do this all the time? Mine, too!’” For Phung, then, ASA lives up to its mandate of offering up a safe place for Asian students to just be themselves and form everlasting friendships with people who will support them no matter what. 

From the ground up

Building connections through organizations such as ASA has had genuine effects on Phung’s friendships and relationships. It’s why she chose to attend SU. “[Southwestern] was a small school, and I felt, because it was a small school, I could focus on creating personal relationships with everyone. It’s not just ‘hi’ or ‘bye’ to a stranger, but it’s ‘oh, I recognize this person from class,’ or ‘I talked to them before.’ [It’s] knowing people by name and recognition rather than just their face,” Phung describes. “That’s why I came to Southwestern.”

“It’s knowing people by name and recognition rather than just their face. That’s why I came to Southwestern.”

Looking outside of the collective, ASA is also a group that has allowed Phung to grow within herself. She says, “I wanted to be able to concentrate on my personal growth, not only from the personal connections that people have but being able to develop my own skill set the best I can, and ASA was the perfect provider for that because it’s a small group, so I got to know everyone personally and learn from them more in depth than I could have at a large college.” She’s also been able to keep in contact with alumni who graduated last year and continue to learn from them. It’s as much of a networking opportunity as a fun college experience. 

But the group needs growth. The year before Phung joined ASA, there were only two members, which grew to around 10 when Phung became historian and invited friends. “For sure we want more members to come more to the events,” Phung comments. “But in order to do that, this year, we want to expand our growth in activities for the community in order to get those people in.” This prioritizing of events has become the focus of Phung’s and her fellow officers’ energy, but with COVID-19 protocols in place, that is proving to be more difficult than expected. But of course they’ve found a way around it. 

Focusing on the positive, Phung has managed to spread lightheartedness in the season of turmoil. They’ve begun using their Instagram page again with the hopes of making the organization more known. Weekly facts, both fun informative bits about their culture and more serious social-justice content, have been posted to their social-media accounts. They’ve also planned on putting up decorations in McCombs during Asian holidays to keep students informed. “I just want people to know about this group,” Phung comments. Considering the small atmosphere Southwestern creates compared to larger universities, “you see everyone and you know everyone… [that’s] a lot nicer and a lot more fun,” she smiles. 

In the end… 

Asian Students Association has always been there for Phung since day one, and she pays them back every day by spreading the word about the activities, events, and cultural experiences students can gain from being a member. She is grateful that the organization has given her friends, roommates, and priceless college memories. “It’s just been a lot of fun to deal with [friendships and cultural experiences],” she says. And she can’t wait to see where this journey takes her.