On a quiet Thursday afternoon in early April, while many students and faculty are away for spring break, a small group has convened in University Center 123 on the Fresno State campus. This group, comprised of members of the Fresno State Asian and Faculty Staff Association (AFSA), Asian-American students and community members, have been meeting for several weeks with one steadfast goal in mind – the successful return of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander Commencement Ceremony.

120519Commencement073The last ceremony of its kind took place in 2002. Thirteen years later, the group determined to bring back the ceremony, have made it a reality. The Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) commencement ceremony will take place on Saturday, May 9, 2015 at Fresno State’s North Gym 118 at 12 p.m. President Joseph Castro will preside as the keynote speaker at the event, which takes place one week before the University commencement on May 16.

Student organizers Melissa Vang (l) and Vicky Xiong- Lor (r).
Student organizers Melissa Vang (l) and Vicky Xiong- Lor (r).

The return of the AAPI commencement ceremony was initially spearheaded by two higher education students at Fresno State, Vicky Xiong-Lor and Melissa Vang. In the fall of 2014, the two of them jointly approached President Castro with the idea of bringing back the AAPI commencement ceremony. After receiving positive feedback from head administrative officials at the University, including Castro and Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dr. Lynnette Zelezny, the commencement became official in January 2015.

Xiong-Lor, a third-year doctoral student of Educational Leadership, said this is a significant step toward providing more recognition of AAPI students on campus.

“Asians make up the second highest minority on campus,” said Xiong-Lor. “Many people don’t realize that. It just goes to show that we are a very important part of the University. It is our hope that that having an individual commencement ceremony will motivate AAPI students and show them that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that they should be proud of the degree they earned. I am living proof that a degree at Fresno State leads to many opportunities.”

140517Commencement076Xiong-Lor received her bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies in 1995 and has been an educator for Clovis Unified School District for the past 19 years.

Vang, a second-year graduate student in the Higher Education, Administration, and Leadership program, hopes the tradition of an AAPI commencement ceremony will carry on with future graduating classes, but says it cannot be done without the support of students.

“It is so great to have faculty and staff support, but we need students to lead the effort,” said Vang. “We encourage all graduating AAPI seniors to participate, but having juniors come out as volunteers this year will greatly prepare them to take the lead next year. After all, this commencement is history in the making.”

130518Commencement029In an effort to garner interest from students, Vang and Xiong-Lor have started a Facebook page and have done outreach at a number of AAPI cultural events on campus.

According to the latest data from Fresno State’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness, there are 3,378 Asian-American and Pacific Islander students on campus as of fall 2014, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Of that number, about 700 are expected to graduate in spring 2015.

Phong Yang, associate director of University Outreach Services and AAPI commencement committee member, said this number reflects a need to have a recognized AAPI commencement on campus.

“It is important that we celebrate these students’ success with their community,” said Yang. The celebration will show families, graduates and the Asian community that graduating from college is achievable for them and many others like them. The parents need this time to be proud of their graduates and receive confirmation that their younger ones can one day get there as well. At the same time, this event will instill hope for the younger siblings that they too will be able to walk that same stage.”

130518Commencement096Fresno State has a long-standing tradition of celebrating diversity on campus, with an African-American, Latino, American Indian, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ), and International commencement ceremonies already in place. The return of the AAPI commencement ceremony will be a long-time coming, said Dr. Katsuyo Howard, Counselor Emerita, currently teaching in the Kremen School of Education and Human Development.

Howard was responsible for organizing the very first small scale Southeast Asian graduation ceremony back in the late 1980s. “About 25-30 graduates of Hmong, Lao, Cambodian and Vietnamese descent took part in the ceremony – which represented the first wave of Southeast Asian students to arrive on campus after escaping their war-torn countries,” said Howard.

At that time, Howard served as a coordinator for the Southeast Asian Student Services (SEAS) and saw a need for a recognized ceremony that would allow students to celebrate their accomplishments with their family and community.

130518Commencement048In 1999, the name of the celebration was changed to Asian-American Graduation Recognition Ceremony to represent all Asian-American and Pacific Islander students on campus. When the SEAS program closed in 2003 due to budget cuts, this celebration was also discontinued. After so many years, Howard says she is pleased to see the AAPI commencement ceremony make a comeback.

“I am very delighted to see students like Vicky and Melissa come forward to make this happen again,” said Howard. “This can’t happen without students to support the commencement as organizers and participants. It is also important for the families of our Asian graduates to see their accomplishments. For graduates, it is not just an individual accomplishment, but a chance for the entire community to celebrate them. That is the beauty of an event like this.”

The deadline to register to be a part of this historic commencement will be April 10th. A deposit of $20 is required to guarantee a spot at the ceremony. To register, please visit the AAPI Commencement Ceremony registration page.

For additional questions on the AAPI Commencement Ceremony, please contact Melissa Vang at 559.289.2102 or melissa.rvang@gmail.com. You may also follow the event on Facebook for up-to-date information.

140517Commencement102All photos used with permission by California State University, Fresno.

Click here to view a full list of University commencement ceremonies.