Bonded together by grief and hope, members of Vassar’s Asian and Asian American student body gathered in the stony Shakespeare Garden on May 7 for a vigil honoring the lives of Asian Americans lost to anti-Asian violence. Attended along with supporting faculty and friends, the vigil allowed students to share a sense of community, as well as bring attention to the lack of attention on campus surrounding Asian American issues.
The vigil came as a response to the rise of anti-Asian racism in the country, which has persisted throughout American history but continues to prevail since the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet for the vigil’s student organizers, the gathering also served as a response to the erasure felt among Vassar’s Asian and Asian American community. “[It] emerged from many students’ shared and obvious frustration with the Vassar administration’s lack of care, attention and accountability for the Asian community on-campus,” Stephen Han ’23, who photographed the event, explained in a written correspondence. “The vigil, in a way, became a sort of a celebration, a declaration, and an assertion of our community’s agency, presence, and identity—a space created for ourselves, by ourselves. We knew that we could not wait any longer for institutions and authority figures to see or validate our humanity and personhood.”
Planning for the event began as early as February. On February 21, Alysa Chen ’23, member of the Vassar Asian American Working Group (VASAM), sent out an email to Asian-idenitifying ALANA organizations as well as some of her Asian American peers to start planning the vigil. In an email correspondence, Chen recalled the difficulty of coordinating the event. “It was tough to find times that worked for everyone, given how busy the spring semester was for everyone, as well as other responsibilities, clubs, work-study, [COVID], etc.,” she wrote. “Because it was a student-run initiative, it was difficult to get support from admin and faculty and we relied on student leaders to donate funds from their orgs.”
However, Chen found support from Postdoctoral Fellow in American Studies Raquel Madrigal, who shared her experiences in activism and organizing prior to Vassar as one of the main co-organizers for Yoga for People of Color Sangha, a grassroots organization in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As Madrigal explained, the organization focused on bringing healing and empowerment among activists of color and organizers of color through activities such as yoga, meditation, critical reading circles and wellness workshops. Through this community, members were able to form their own space that provided resources unavailable in Albuquerque’s white yoga and meditation community.
Drawing from her time at the organization, Madrigal said that she told Chen, “[W]hat do you want to do, what do you need in this time to take your own healing and self-validation into your own hands, for your own self/selves? Through this vigil take your personal power back, claim your own presence and the value of your own life/lives. Take up space that you do belong, and by doing this vigil, you do it as a journey of and for your own healing.”
Madrigal was one of the few faculty who attended the event, along with Professor of Political Science Katherine Hite. “For me it was a continuation, in a different form, of my collaborations in Albuquerque,” Madrigal reflected. “In this, the vigil was a powerful time where all the heaviness that needed to be expressed was felt, seen, heard, and held. I am proud the students came together and did this for themselves, and I was honored and humbled to participate as a faculty mentor, ally, co-conspirator, and comrade.”
The vigil began with a series of Buddhist prayers offered by Edward Cai ’22. Afterwards, Chen offered her reflections on the last two years of anti-Asian racism, inviting attendees to share any experiences or emotions that came to mind. Following Chen, Madrigal burnt sage over a pedestal and attendees lit candles for each other as they sat in silence in memory of those who lost their lives. Below the pedestal were posters listing the names of the victims, including Christina Yuna Lee, Yao Pan Ma and the six women killed in the 2021 Atlanta shootings.
Amidst grief, there was also celebration. Attendees were invited to write notes on poster boards set up in the garden, messages that not only shared their sorrow but also offered hope and reminders to take care of themselves and their loved ones. Students also checked up on each other and ate food, which included dumplings and some tteokbokki made by Minkyo Han ’25.
For students of Vassar’s Asian and Asian American community, the vigil offered them what Vassar could not: a sense of visibility. “As a born-and-raised New Yorker, living in Queens, it has been difficult to feel at home in a place that had otherwise been exactly that,” said Stephen Han. “And, at Vassar, my feelings of placelessness have only intensified with the college’s lack of dedication and accountability to the Asian students on-campus. More often than not, it feels like the college sees us purely as Asian students rather than Asian people.”
Still, he added, “In more ways than one, the vigil offered a space where my anger, confusion, and frustration could unapologetically and messily coexist with my hopes, dreams, and joys. The vigil offered a space where I could simply be—which is a rare thing nowadays.”