A fledgling University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student organization is already leaving its mark on campus and in the community.
In November 2021, the Asian Student Association was launched to provide a network for Asian students and their friends interested in learning more about diverse cultures.
The organization was created by Emma Sprayberry, an Innovations in Honors student pursuing a degree in humanities: international studies with an emphasis in Asian studies.
“Our purpose is to foster a community for Asian-heritage students in case they wanted to have a community that they could come and do activities with people that might understand their cultural background,” said Sprayberry, who is of Chinese descent.
“ASA is also open to any student; it’s not just for Asian students. And it’s for anyone interested in Asian culture.”
According to data provided by the UTC Office of Planning, Evaluation and Institutional Research, at the start of the 2021-2022 academic year, the University officially had 377 students (318 undergraduate and 59 graduate students) and 85 faculty (68 full-time and 17 part-time) identifying as Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.
Sprayberry, the inaugural ASA president, is on pace to graduate in December 2023. She spent last summer studying in South Korea thanks to a U.S. Department of State Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship and a Freeman-ASIA Scholarship.
“After I came back from studying abroad in Korea, I missed being around a community of people who looked like me or shared similar interests,” said Sprayberry, who grew up in nearby Rossville, Georgia, “so I looked into founding a student organization.
“I reached out to the few Asian people that I knew that might be interested in joining, and Emily was one of them.”
The Emily she referred to was Emily Williams, a junior psychology major from Spring Hill, Tennessee.
“Not every culture within Asia is the same, and it’s nice to show the different aspects of your culture,” said Williams, also of Chinese descent, who is the organization’s secretary.
“I can’t remember if any Asian associations had been here at UTC in prior years,” she continued, “but it’s nice to now be a part of a community of people who share common interests.
“AAPI Month is a great way to celebrate that.”
Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is a May celebration recognizing the contributions and influence of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans to U.S. history, culture and achievements.
According to the Library of Congress, the month of May was chosen to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the U.S. (May 7, 1843) and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad (May 10, 1869). The majority of the workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants.
Since most UTC students return home after final exams, numerous events have occurred throughout April.
The ASA assisted in putting together an Asian arts meeting and an Asian Professionals in Academia panel. The organization also helped promote the UTC Center for Global Education’s Global Spotlight: Japan event.
“It means a lot that UTC is celebrating AAPI Heritage Month and the Asian community,” Sprayberry said. “I remember when I was a freshman and felt like, ‘There’s no representation for me on campus or anything.’ I kind of felt excluded from a lot of things.
“But this year, it’s a lot different.”
On Saturday, April 30, ASA members will serve as volunteers for the Chattanooga Public Library’s Holi Festival at Coolidge Park.
“Holi is a Hindu festival, popularly known as a color festival,” explained Suhani Patel, the ASA’s social media manager. “There’s a color war of sorts that represents good versus evil and the triumph of good. Basically, everyone wears light-colored clothes and you throw colors at each other. It’s just a big party.”
Patel, a sophomore biology major from Hixson, acknowledged that when it comes to thinking about Asian Americans, people of Indian descent don’t come to the top of the list.
“I have a lot of people who say to me, ‘Oh, you’re Asian?’” But anytime I fill out any paperwork or anything that you have to mark your ethnicity, I put Asian—because India is in Asia,” Patel said.
“That’s the thing about this club; there are a lot of countries and a lot of cultures. And we’re trying to show there’s a lot of diversity. It gives us a voice and allows us to control how we’re represented.”
The student group has also played a pivotal role in acclimating international students to campus.
This semester, 13 Japanese undergraduates from J.F. Oberlin University—a private four-year institution in the Tokyo suburb of Machida—are among 26 international students participating in the UTC English as a Second Language Institute.
Patel said that the Japanese students showed up to one of the ASA events, “and we just became friends with them and encouraged them to come to more events. It allowed them to practice their English, learn about American culture and get the experience of an American university.
“It also allowed us to learn from them,” she continued. “They’ve taught us so much more about Japan than we could learn from a book or from YouTube videos.”