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Michigan Ross Prof Teaches Course on Race and Identity, Explores Questions About Status of Anti-Asian Racism in U.S.


Developing Global Competency is a course that all undergraduate students take as part of the study-abroad curriculum at the Ross School of Business.

The course was created by Assistant Professor Julia Lee Cunningham and Michigan Ross PhD candidate Laura Sonday as a way to help students transition to, and then reflect upon, their lives abroad. The course includes a series of podcast interviews with experts in cross-cultural issues.

In April 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the globe, all University of Michigan study abroad programs were suspended and students were asked to return home. It was during Lee Cunningham’s check-ins with her newly stateside students that she learned about the COVID-related racism her Asian and Asian American students endured both abroad and in the U.S. She was compelled to help them.

So Lee Cunningham reached out to Jennifer Ho, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, to talk about issues of identity, race, and culture — especially as they apply to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.

Lee Cunningham, a core faculty member at the Center for Positive Organizations, recently reflected on the interview to help explain its importance in today’s climate.

Why was it important for your students to learn about matters of race and identity, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic?

I felt a deep sense of responsibility to support my students who were suffering. All students found themselves abruptly cutting their study-abroad experiences short. But my Asian and Asian American students were also suffering from targeted pandemic-related hate.

My course is fundamentally about making the case for why we should care about people who may not share the same cultural background as us, and why we should care about what’s happening around the world.

In addition to validating and giving voice to these experiences, I wanted this to be a collective learning experience in which all students are informed about the suffering of marginalized groups, and come to understand the historical context of anti-Asian racism. Most importantly, I wanted to provide specific guidelines for practicing allyship.

Julia Lee Cunningham, assistant professor at Michigan Ross


Why did you feel that Dr. Jennifer Ho was the best person to lead this discussion?

I was introduced to Dr. Jennifer Ho by a colleague and quickly discovered her passion toward the combating of racism as a basic human right. Jennifer has developed resources to better educate people about the history of racism in the United States, often through her own experience of being Asian American.

I grew up in Seoul, and not as an Asian American, and therefore know very little about what it is like to grow up in the U.S. I therefore am grateful to Jennifer, as I have personally learned so much from her and have great respect for the courage that she embodies as an anti-racism educator.

You recorded this interview last year, in April 2020. How would you compare the United States’ anti-Asian sentiment between 2020 and 2021?

Although the recent rise of anti-Asian racism and hatred was quite predictable, I don’t think it has garnered the level of attention that it deserves, especially during the early onset of COVID-19 in 2020.

Since the Atlanta shooting, I have seen more vocal support for the AAPI community, and I am proud of what our students are doing to tell their story, stand in solidarity, and fight against hatred. However, as Jennifer noted during our interview, there seems to be a general lack of public understanding when it comes to the history of anti-Asian racism and the experience of the AAPI community.

Even though all U-M study abroad programs were canceled for the current year, were you still able to teach this important course?

Thankfully, yes. Given the struggles and uncertainties my students faced during the pandemic, I wanted to empower students by teaching a leadership craft that transcends different cultural contexts. Public narrative is a specific form of storytelling that links our own calling to the shared purpose of our community and also to a call to action.

During the course, my teaching staff and I worked with students to identify, articulate, and communicate their story of self, story of us, and story of now. At the end of the course, my students shared their deeply personal, yet commonly held human experiences (e.g., moments of feeling hurt, feeling hopeful) to mobilize others towards a collective action.


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