Ray Nakada ’17 spent his early years in New Jersey, then moved to Tokyo with his Japanese parents when he was 9. When he returned to the United States to attend a private high school near Boston, he said he immersed himself in “whatever it means to be an American.”
“I left out a lot of my heritage, my parents’ culture,” Nakada said. “At Colby, I realized I wouldn’t be able to do that anymore. I knew that something had to change.”
It did—and not only for Nakada.
Nakada is spearheading an effort to start an Asian-American studies program at Colby. The effort began when Nakada discovered the Asian Student Association (ASA) and immediately felt welcomed. Iris Kim ’14, the club’s president at the time, and other ASA members “let me acknowledge what it meant to be an Asian American as opposed to just an American,” he said.
Then two members of the Class of 2015, Karen Chen and Mina Kobayashi, suggested the idea of an Asian-American studies course to Nakada, and later pitched the idea to President David A. Greene. When the two graduated, Nakada, then vice president of the ASA, took on the initiative.
While taking a full course load for his biology major, Nakada met frequently last fall with Greene, American Studies Program Director and Associate Professor Laura Saltz, and former Senior Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity Programs Tashia Bradley to arrange a Jan Plan course, a first step toward implementing Asian-American studies at Colby.
When there was an unexpected opening for an additional Jan Plan course in 2016, Nakada was ready. Saltz put him in touch with Jan Plan instructor Maki Smith, who holds a Ph.D. in American history with a concentration in Asian-American studies. Smith got behind the idea and designed the course, Tracing the Asian-American Experience, an introduction to Asian-American history as well as the field of Asian-American studies.
The Jan Plan class filled quickly and, according to Smith, included thoughtful discussions about immigration, race, and citizenship among Asian and non-Asian students. It was, Saltz said, “a promising beginning.”
“I left out a lot of my heritage, my parents’ culture,” Nakada said. “At Colby, I realized I wouldn’t be able to do that anymore. I knew that something had to change.”—Ray Nakada ’17
While Smith created the course content, “Ray’s work really was a matter of setting wheels in motion, and a lot of people aren’t willing to do that,” Saltz said. “His willingness to put himself out there [and] willingness to do the homework was really inspiring. The report [to Greene] is … an extraordinary document.”
To establish Asian-American studies as an ASA initiative, Nakada repositioned the club as not just a festival organizer but a place for members of the Colby community who are seeking a more active, just world.
Now Nakada is advocating for a semester-length course, preparing another report for the administration. The move would require more funding and likely another faculty hire, but Nakada said he believes the course is a crucial addition to Colby’s curriculum. If Asian-Americans are not adequately included in the discussion, it’s “detrimental to the education of the overall community, plus the Asian community,” Nakada said.
“We don’t know where we are,” he said, “unless we know where we came from.”