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The Short Story: APIDA Students Look for Space

March 23, 2021

As the program coordinator for the UW’s APIDA Student Center, Tev Lee has spent the last year thinking about space. He is concerned about physical space — his center, launched in 2019, is looking for a permanent home — and about metaphorical space. The latter is the theme of this year’s APIDA Heritage Month at UW–Madison: the Spaces in Between.

“The theme sparked from the idea that we as the APIDA community are not a homogenous group,” says Lee, noting that APIDA stands for Asian Pacific Islander Desi American — a broad collection of people from different backgrounds.

“The notion of the Spaces in Between is that with the APIDA community, oftentimes we have to navigate through this American culture, but our parents are a connection to our ethnic homelands,” he says. “Even though a lot of students are born here in the U.S. and have that citizenship, they still have ties to their ethnic homelands, and they often find themselves in the spaces in between — we’re American, but we’re not seen as Americans; we’re seen as the perpetual foreigner.”

Nationally, APIDA Heritage Month is in May, but due to final exams and commencement, campus honors APIDA heritage in April. This year’s events began with an online festival on April 1 and included a keynote address by NAME TO COME, and a virtual gala. The month wraps up April 28 with a film event.

Lee became the adviser for the APIDA Student Center when the organization was established in fall 2019, and his tenure has faced unexpected challenges. Among the group’s first goals was finding a permanent home and establishing regular programming. But the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020 complicated those plans. The 2020 APIDA Heritage Month — on the theme Reclaiming Our Narratives — had to quickly shift from an in-person to an entirely online event. “To say that we scrambled is an understatement,” he says.

But he also believes that the pandemic has revealed how vital the center’s work on campus is. “Some of the anti-Asian sentiments that occurred last year definitely were devastating,” he says. “During COVID times, the idea of yellow peril is very prominent. We’re seen as a threat. And so that’s also another added layer to the complexity of us having to figure out and navigate the spaces in between.”

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