When Abhishek Shankar arrived at Carolina as a first-year student in 2017, he quickly became involved in extracurricular activities like student government, research and volunteer work.
But as he immersed himself in campus activities, Shankar felt like something was missing. As an Asian American student, he was searching for a place where he could connect with other students like him.
“I was struggling, when I came to Carolina, to understand my own identity,” Shankar said.
Then, an opportunity to create a space he felt was missing presented itself, and Shankar took advantage of it and joined the campaign to establish a UNC-Chapel Hill Asian American Center on campus.
“Getting involved with this was super empowering for me because I really felt heard and supported,” said Shankar, an environmental health sciences major in the Gillings School of Global Public Health.
In January 2020, thanks to Shankar and his fellow UNC-Chapel Hill Asian American Center Campaign committee members, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees approved plans for the center, and the center opened during the fall semester.
The center will be a space for Carolina students to learn about Asian American identity through resources and programming, like visiting scholars and guest lecturers.
“I want future students, whether they are Asian American or not,” Shankar said, “to come to Carolina and be able to understand that the Asian American identity deserves to be seen, heard, promoted and understood.”
The efforts to start a center date back to 1994, Shankar said, noting that the current organizers owe their success to the people who worked toward this goal earlier.
Thinking about the campaign’s efforts over the past year, Shankar said that the committee helped him find the community he was looking for as a first-year student.
“I took a risk when I got involved with the campaign because I didn’t know anyone,” said Shankar, who serves as the campaign director. “But it turned out to be super rewarding, and I found a group of super-passionate individuals, so I definitely made the right choice. We’ve come a long way.”
Throughout his years at Carolina, and during his work with the center campaign, Shankar has developed a deeper understanding of the unique experience of being Asian American in the American South — something he hopes more students will be able to learn about through the new center.
“As an Asian American-identifying individual myself, I think it’s a very unique experience to be Asian American in the South,” Shankar said. “There are a lot of unique cultural and individual roles that one might experience, and at times there are parts of your identity that are conflicting. Having a dedicated space is going to go a long way in helping other students learn about and understand this.”
He believes the center will also help other Asian American students find a supportive community at Carolina, like the one he found through the campaign committee.
“I know that a lot of the challenges that I experienced at Carolina, and a lot of the challenges that my friends and peers went through, could be avoided if more people partake in understanding the Asian American identity and sharing each other’s cultures,” Shankar said. “The center will provide that opportunity, and it will be a valuable experience.”