Asian American Student Association: providing community and support


She remembers the incident because it was so out of the ordinary.

It happened at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. She was going about her day as usual at the pharmacy. She loves working there because she can empower patients with their health and form connections with people. 

Then one day, a white man walked in and told her he didn’t want her to help him.

She couldn’t breathe. 

Lehua Kono said she has faced discrimination and microaggressions her whole life, but never like this. The man was forceful in refusing her help. She had never experienced such overt racism. 

“Just knowing that I can be as helpful or as empathetic as I can and still be told ‘I don’t want you to help me’ hurt a lot,” Kono said. 

Although this was the most extreme experience of racism Kono had ever encountered, she has been impacted by many other instances of discrimination. 

Examples of bigotry similar to this are why organizations like the Asian American Student Association at the University of Utah are important. AASA provides a community for minority students to gain support and talk about their experiences in a safe space. 

Lehuo Kono was the president of AASA during the 2021-22 school year. The previous year she was the external vice president of AASA. Before she was the external vice president, Kono was the director of social justice. Kono said this is no longer a position in AASA because they believe everyone should be social justice-centered. Photo courtesy of Lehua Kono.

Kono is currently the president of AASA and a senior at the U, planning to graduate in May 2022. She joined AASA her first year because she wanted to find community on campus — something she wasn’t able to do earlier in life. 

Growing up in Farmington, Utah, Kono said she was one of the few people of color at her school. As early as first grade, she started to notice that she was treated differently from her white friends. Kids would make fun of her eye shape and would call her “that Chinese girl,” although she is Japanese and Filipino. 

Many members of AASA have endured the same thing, Kono said. Together, members can share their frustrations. 

One place where productive conversations are held is member meetings. Each Friday at 2 p.m., usually on Zoom because of the coronavirus pandemic, AASA members gather. 

Students make origami fish during a weekly member meeting. Photo courtesy of Lehua Kono.

They go through announcements, which could include service or fundraising opportunities, and also discuss different topics each week. The topic may correspond to an Asian holiday, so members will learn its history and traditions, or it could be something like learning how to do origami. However, other times the topic is heavier, such as discussing the model minority myth and microaggressions. 

The model minority myth is based on stereotypes. Kono said Asian Americans are the “standard” for minorities. She said Asians assimilate very well into white American culture, and that many believe every incoming culture should too. 

Part of the reason Asian Americans are labeled a model minority is that they were taught not to speak up, Kono said. However, she explained that her generation is trying to disrupt that practice. 

Compared to the model minority myth, microaggressions might not seem as big of a problem, but the fact that they happen all the time is cause for concern. Christine Yun, the graphic designer for AASA, said she didn’t even realize she was experiencing microaggressions when she was young. It was AASA that helped her understand why.

Christine Yun is the graphic designer for AASA. As such, she creates graphics to promote AASA events. Photo courtesy of Christine Yun.

“I didn’t realize being eight years old that I was facing microaggressions,” Yun said, “and that’s why I felt uncomfortable if I wasn’t with Asian people.”

The discomfort caused by microaggressions is what makes communities like AASA so critical. The organization brings light to what Asian Americans are feeling and experiencing, Yun said. 

Further, Yun explained that because Utah is a more conservative, majority-white state, it doesn’t leave much room for productive conversations. 

Discussions about microaggressions and discrimination Asian Americans face are important for widespread understanding. Predominantly white areas make those discussions difficult to be heard. 

To let Asian American students know they have a place to have meaningful conversations, a place where people listen, AASA hosts a high school conference. At this annual conference, Asian students all around Utah are invited to the University of Utah. The conference showcases unity and lets Asian students know that there is a supportive community for them at the U.

The attendees of the high school conference gather for a group photo. In front you can see Thien Nguyen who was the director of high school conference for AASA. Photo courtesy of Lehua Kono.

The conference usually has a keynote speaker, workshops on social justice, a student panel, traditional singing and dancing performances and more.

Yun said the conference lets incoming students know that AASA is a safe, friendly environment.

“You’re experiencing these things and so are these other people in your community, and you feel a lot less alone,” Yun said.

Similar to Yun, Saya Zeleznik said she didn’t know microaggressions were bad. Zeleznik is the director of service for AASA. She said microaggressions seemed normal because she experienced them all the time. 

Zeleznik said if she got a bad grade, other students would say she was a “bad Asian” or call her “fasian” (fake Asian). She would also get negative comments on the food she ate. 

Microaggressions against Zeleznik did not originate only from other students, though. 

Saya Zeleznik is the director of service for AASA. Her duties include setting up community events for AASA members to gain service hours, volunteer hours, or experience. There are usually events every month. Photo courtesy of Saya Zeleznik.

Zeleznik said teachers loved to “play the ethnicity game.” They would see her and then start naming countries, trying to guess where she is “really” from. As soon as she was sitting at a desk with the roll being called, Zeleznik said she experienced discrimination. 

She has even faced discrimination from a teacher at the U. 

Zeleznik said her Japanese professor is very passive-aggressive and demeaning toward her and another woman in the class who is also half Japanese. Some students in the class think Zeleznik has an easier time because of her Japanese background, but she said that’s not the case.

“It’s hard to explain to people, especially the white kids in the class,” Zeleznik said. “You have an advantage even here.”

Zeleznik explained that it’s frustrating when people don’t take what she says seriously. Those experiences already are tough to deal with and when people don’t understand or believe her, it makes it even harder.

 “It’s hard to be kind of angry all the time,” Zeleznik said. “I would just like to be around people who understand.”

AASA helped her realize that what she experienced was not only not OK, but that others like her had gone through the same thing. AASA is where Zeleznik found people who understand and support her. 

One example showcasing the support and community AASA provides was the Tree Utah event Zeleznik organized. 

The event was in October 2021, by the International Peace Gardens, where a Japanese sculpture had recently been vandalized with spray paint. 

At 8 a.m., 20 AASA members carpooled to West Jordan to plant trees for three hours. Tree Utah provided the plants and equipment, which Zeleznik said included willows, oaks, and shrubs and a “pile of shovels, a bunch of crowbars and gloves.”

The team was ready to start planting after some instruction on how to use the tools and how far to space out the plants — three feet. Everything was going great, although the piercing cold and the pouring rain were not part of the plan. 

“Everyone got really, really muddy,” Zeleznik said. “It was really nice because the holes were easy to dig.”

Despite the rainy weather, Zeleznik said it was great to see everyone together. Even Jada Kali, the external vice president of AASA, wanted to help out. Zeleznik said Kali was sick, so she couldn’t help with the planting. However, Kali still drove out to the site, bundled up in three parkas, and brought the team Banbury Cross Donuts. 

The spirit of collaboration evident at this AASA event is part of its core beliefs. 

AASA fosters collaboration not only within the association but between associations. AASA wishes to support and work with more than just Asian Americans. Zeleznik said the organization cooperates with other groups, including the Pacific Islander Student Association. 

“It’s for all minorities,” she said. AASA is “creating a community where minorities support each other.”

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