Commencement 2019 concluded the first academic year in which Princeton University undergraduates were able to choose from among three certificates offered by the Program in American Studies. 2019 was also the first Commencement in which a Princeton senior graduated with a certificate in Asian American studies.
The 2019 cohort of American studies (AMS), Asian American studies (ASA), and Latino studies (LAO) certificate earners brought perspectives to and from the arts, humanities, natural and social sciences, and public service work on and outside the Princeton campus. They represented ten departmental concentrations.
Below, three graduating seniors reflect on their studies.
What excites me about Asian American studies is how it draws from Asian American experiences in order to interrogate both the racial formation of Asians within and outside of the U.S. and the maintenance of the U.S. nation-state as a whole. Asian American studies is particularly positioned to theorize on migration, citizenship, militarism, and U.S. imperialism — especially when the field is placed in conversation with Latinx studies, African American studies, East and South Asian studies, and gender and sexuality studies here at Princeton. Asian American studies is not simply for Asian Americans; rather, it is a versatile discipline that provides everybody the tools to destabilize notions of race, citizenship, gender, sexuality, class. History, literature, the arts, technology — these are all forms through which people can engage in Asian Americanist critique.
Of my Asian American studies courses here at Princeton, the most memorable has to be my first: “Introduction to Asian American Studies: Race, War, Decolonization,” first taught in the spring of 2017. Professor Laurel Mei-Singh [postdoctoral research associate in American studies] led us through discussions on how anti-Black racism, Orientalism, settler colonialism, militarism, and labor exploitation have shaped the experiences of Asians and Pacific Islanders (API) on the U.S. mainland, in American colonies past and present, and at sites of imperialist warfare. We also learned about API resistances to these forms of violence.
Asian American studies impacted my anthropological work by providing me a theoretical framework to critically examine histories of API racialization. In my thesis, “Curating Queer of Color Utopia in Queer/Trans Asian/Pacific Islander American Nightlife,” I conducted an ethnography on queer/trans API parties and drag shows in New York City, under the advisement of Professor Ryo Morimoto [assistant professor of anthropology]. Drawing from ethnographies of nightlife, Asian Americanist critique, and theories on queer utopia, I argue that these nightlife spaces are curated and activated in ways that allow queer API folks to rearticulate normative API histories, perform radical forms of community joy and care, critique white supremacy, and reimagine both queer and API futures.
My studies in AMS have complemented my other studies in the humanities and in literary and cultural history, but have also enriched my understanding of what “American” identity means. I am also a certificate student in theater, and for my theater thesis I wrote a play about an American town’s protest of the statue of their colonial founder. What histories get remembered in the narrative of “American history?” How do we define our nation and national identity?
My thesis in the English department was titled “Ghost Melodramas and the Staging of American History,” advised by Professor Diana Fuss [Louis W. Fairchild ’24 Professor of English]. I analyzed ghost stories and plays in American literature primarily from the 19th century, and focused on their melodramatic qualities and their use in performing different narratives of “America” and American history that reinforce white colonial dominance.
AMS provided the opportunity for me to pursue both creative and scholarly interests. I was able to take classes on casting and inclusion [in] contemporary theater through [Associate Professor of Theater] Brian Herrera’s class “Movements for Diversity in American Theater”; I studied film and gender in [Visiting Associate Professor of Media Studies] Amy Herzog’s course “Gender, Sexuality, and Media,” [which] was one of my AMS electives. These courses reinforced my interests in theater, film, and performance, as well as enriched my studies by prompting me to consider representations of American identity from new angles.
I write mostly plays and short stories, though recently have been exploring writing for film. At Princeton, I have been involved in writing for theater with the Princeton Triangle Club, and was an editor for campus alternative weekly newspaper The Nassau Weekly.
Starting in October, I will be doing a one-year master’s degree in film and screen studies at the University of Cambridge.
Samuel Vilchez Santiago
Since high school, I have been deeply involved with the Latinx community. When I came to Princeton, I quickly joined Princeton Latinos y Amigos (PLA) — Princeton’s pan-Latinx undergraduate student organization — as well as the Program in Latino Studies. As part of Princeton Latinos y Amigos and LAO, I was involved in the conversations about the incorporation of LAO into the American studies program. That’s how I learned more about AMS, which I eventually decided to join.
My favorite AMS/LAO course was Professor Brian Herrera’s “Theater and Society Now,” which also happened to be my first theater course. As part of the course, we engaged in conversations about interconnections between theater production and larger societal issues including race, ethnicity, and diversity. We were also required to experience theatrical productions in different venues.
As part of the course “Immigration Politics and Policymaking in the United States,” I interviewed my member of Congress and his staff, community activists, and other local elected officials to seek a better understanding of immigration issues in Florida’s 9th Congressional District, which covers Orlando and Kissimmee. I learned about different political research methodologies, which proved pivotal as I completed a junior paper and a senior thesis.
This thesis [title: “From Revolution to Diaspora: Societal Responses to Venezuelan Migrants in Cúcuta and Boa Vista”] explores the difference in societal responses to Venezuelan migrants and refugees between the border localities of Cúcuta, Colombia — where responses have been positive — and Boa Vista, Brazil — where there has been a hostile response. I find that while Cúcutans perceive Venezuelan migrants and refugees as both siblings and potential economic partners, Boa Vistans see them as “invaders” and economic competitors.
I plan to pursue a career in politics, seeking to combine my passion for campaigning and public policy reform.
Recognition for Service, Academic Achievement
At the University Class Day ceremony, Vilchez Santiago received the Priscilla Glickman ’92 Memorial Prize, given to a Princeton senior who has demonstrated independence and imagination in the area of community service, seeks knowledge and purposeful adventure in unfamiliar cultures and maintains strong academic work. In April, he was a recipient of the 2019 Spirit of Princeton Award for service and contributions to campus life.
The Program in American Studies awarded Katherine Duggan the Asher Hinds Prize for outstanding work in the humanities for her thesis “Ghost Melodramas and the Staging of American History.” From the Department of English, she received the Class of 1958 Prize in Honor of Ernest Hemingway, awarded to the graduating senior who best explores the powers of literary style in prose fiction or nonfiction.