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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

An interview with Dr. Sơn Ca Lâm

Dr. Sơn Ca Lâm joins the Asian American Studies Department as a professor. Photo submitted by Michelle Dang / Mass Media Staff.

On March 26, UMass Boston’s Asian American Studies Program and the Vietnamese Student Association held a welcoming reception for the incoming Vietnamese American Studies professor, Dr. Sơn Ca Lâm. After the reception, Dr. Lâm sat down to discuss her history at UMass Boston and her on-going work and opportunities for Vietnamese American students.

Michelle Dang: Linh-Phương Vũ, the current lecturer for ASAMST 294: Resources for Vietnamese Americans, mentioned that she worked as a Teaching Assistant under you for Southeast Asians in the U.S. Have you taught classes at UMass Boston prior to this full-time position in the fall?

Sơn Ca Lâm: I taught my first class at UMass Boston in the summer of 2013 as an adjunct instructor and continued to teach classes in Asian American Studies throughout the years until Spring 2020, which was an unforgettable and challenging year for everyone. It has been a few years since I taught that last class with Linh in 2020, and I am really looking forward to coming back in a full-time capacity in the fall.

MD: During the reception, I know we talked extensively about how Vietnamese American students will be impacted by having a full-time Vietnamese American professor to support them. What gateways do you think may open for other Asian American educators, particularly for UMass Boston, after your hiring?

SCL: First, I want to recognize that many students within the Asian American Studies program have gone on to become K-12 educators and continue to be connected to the program. So this ongoing work of cultivating educators has been a long-term commitment of the Asian American Studies Program that did not just begin with my hiring.

Even so, at the university level, UMass Boston has been federally designated an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institutions school since 2008, which means that it is a Minority Serving Institution. Asian Americans make up about 17 percent of UMass Boston’s undergraduate student population.

This designation as an MSI is highly competitive and is a really big deal because it means that federal money has been allocated to support the success of Asian American students at UMass Boston. Despite its significance, I am not sure if this AANAPISI identity is common knowledge amongst the general students, staff, administrative and faculty body.

But I think that the more people embrace this institutional identity and what it means, the more likely the demands and needs of Asian American students will be heard—including the call for hiring more Asian American educators at the faculty level. This is particularly important to also consider in light of the aftermath of  COVID-19, which has revealed a lot of anti-Asian hate impacting our students and communities.

MD: Do you have any other projects you are working on or exciting opportunities at the moment aside from teaching at UMass Boston in the fall?

SCL: Some of my ongoing work includes a book project on the transnational Vietnamese refugee families through the lens of time. For example, many people in the community, especially the older generation, tell me that “no one has time in the U.S.” and so people are often too busy to see each other. My book project will delve deeper into how this sentiment of “not having time” impacts social relations within the community.

Another project I am hoping to launch is a video installation that draws on the video ethnographic footages and interviews from my research with Vietnamese refugee women to think about home, (un)belonging, and what it means to not have a place in the world. 

MD: Do you have any general advice for current Vietnamese American students interested in learning more about their culture and looking to take advantage of college opportunities? Especially first-generation students?

SCL: As a first generation college student, I did not have much academic guidance from my family. I was lucky to have had the opportunity to take Asian American Studies courses in college where I was able to learn about the social-political-historical contexts that helped me make sense of my family’s experiences. It also provided me a community of peers where I could get advice and learn from my other students who were also struggling to navigate the academic system and wanting to learn more about their family, culture and community.

So make connections, ask questions, and talk to other people, especially the elders in your community. Learn about their stories. Come to the Asian American Studies Program. Take our courses. Students at many other colleges and universities locally don’t have access to the kind of robust Asian American Studies course offerings that UMass Boston does. Many are still fighting for Asian American Studies at their schools.