Each year, 11 students from different Asian countries and regions are awarded the Freeman Asian Scholarship. Established by Mansfield Freeman in 1994, the merit-based scholarship was intended to double the population of international students attending the University and to strengthen ties between the United States and different Asian countries.
While this program was funded for 20 years by the Freeman Foundation, the University has since assumed responsibility for funding the program. Now, 25 years later, around 300 international students attend the University, 44 of which are Freeman scholars. In its current form, the scholarship covers tuition, and scholars can apply for financial aid to cover additional costs.
“I think in many ways, an under-appreciated reason that our international student community is so robust is because of the Freeman scholarship,” said Freeman Scholar faculty advisor Alice Hadler. “It was a pretty revolutionary sort of thing.”
The initial mission of the scholarship has been passed down since its establishment without being updated to reflect this shift in demographics. Because they no longer comprise the dominant population of international students on campus, the current scholars have grappled with defining roles for themselves, within and outside of the community. With one student per year coming from the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam, and from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, each individual Freeman Scholar brings unique experiences and perspectives to campus.
Being a scholarship recipient automatically places the Freeman Scholars in a designated community, the Freeman Asian Scholars Association (FASA), and so it’s not uncommon that Freeman Scholars share fewer similarities than other student groups, whose members opt in to their associations.
And as a group, the scholars occupy a unique space on campus, one that at times proves difficult to define. Within the Asian community, the Freeman Scholars present a different set of concerns than the Asian American Student Collective (AASC). Within the international student community, they face more region-specific considerations.
“It’s just hard to construct a Freeman identity and hard to say how we can contribute to Wesleyan and its importance because we’re so driven in our own individual things,” Freeman Scholar Amira Leila S. ’20 said. “We as students don’t know what this scholarship means, and I don’t know if the administration does either. It’s a good opportunity, and people in the community are like carving out our own visions, our own projects, but in the grander scheme of things, I don’t know what place it has.”
Although FASA’s intended role on campus is not clearly defined, individual scholars have worked to figure out how to represent their backgrounds in their own walks of life. For Freeman Scholar Sandy Kanjanakuha ’21, she has done this through educating her peers in her classes about life in Thailand.
“I’m currently majoring in CSS [the College of Social Studies], so in economics and government, I think Thailand offers a pretty interesting perspective,” Kanjanakuha said. “It’s very different from how it is in the U.S. because we still have the constitutional monarchy alongside Parliament and then everyone’s just kind of like, ‘How does that even work?’ so sometimes I do need to say that, ‘This is what Thailand’s like.’”
But Kanjanakuha, like other scholars, has had to push back against the professors and fellow students deliberately or inadvertently asking her to speak on behalf of her entire country, a responsibility that other international students and domestic minorities also have to face.
“Sometimes you don’t want to be the one who says, ‘This is how it is,’ and it might just come off as biased,” Kanjanakuha said. “Because who are you to say that your entire country is like this or make certain criticisms about it?”
Freeman Scholar Miko Nago ’19 noted how American identity politics can often amplify this tokenization in her experiences, and she finds herself emphasizing that her perspective is not representative of the entirety of Japan.
“I think a lot of people at Wesleyan talk in terms of what they identify with, and if they feel like that identity is theirs and they own it, I think it’s a good way to represent yourself,” Nago said. “But I left Japan because I didn’t really like it there, that’s why I’m here. But then here I am asked to speak on behalf of a Japanese person, so I try to speak about it in terms of my personal experiences.”
Freeman Scholar Anna Nguyen ’22, who has to make similar clarifications in class when professors ask her to speak on the Vietnam War as a Vietnamese student, expressed gratitude for those who want to talk about her background as well as her opinions.
“It does get tiring, but at the same time I appreciate the opportunity to be able to clarify that with the professors because I know that sometimes people are not interested in your story, but they just expect some kind of answer and when you don’t give that expected answer they kind of lose the interest right away,” Nguyen said. “But in my experiences, my professors and friends are very interested in what I have to say.”
It is shared experiences like these, along with experiencing culture shock and applying to majors, that the Freeman Scholars help each other through and discuss as a community. These students also foster connections through the association’s big-little program that pairs upperclassmen with underclassmen. For Nago, these relationships helped guide her through her first year at the University and beyond.
“It doesn’t mean that we always click, and then some of us drift away and I guess we’re not best friends, but I really appreciate how, once something happens, there’s always something that I can come back to,” Nago said.
At a recent Freeman event open to friends of those in FASA, Leila S. reported that the interconnectedness of their community as a whole was apparent even to outside attendees.
“From the people I talked to who went to the event, they’re like, ‘This is a really connected and inclusive community within itself, like, you’re so interconnected with each other,’” Leila S. said. “We provide aid and information and resources with each other even though [we] don’t realize it.”
The first years, Nguyen said, have grown particularly close. They first established communication in April 2018 before they arrived on campus and could get to know each other through a group chat, which eased their transition onto campus.
“I came to Wes and we have these 11 people that just bonded with each other instantaneously, and that was so reassuring for me because I know my friends are always going to be there for me no matter what,” Nguyen said. “So I’m very grateful for the friendship that we share.”
But forming these connections and exchanging information does not eliminate conflicting perspectives within FASA. As an association, FASA struggles to determine what political stances, if any, they should take as a whole. Yu Kai Tan ’20, part of a minority of scholars who feel resistant to the collective acting as one body, recalled upperclassmen trying to steer his fellow first-year scholars into taking the group in a particular direction.
“When I started, there was a very strong trend of upperclassmen trying to impose the moral direction of the community to the lower-classmen,” Tan said. “‘You have to have lunches together. You have to be close to your classmates, and you have to all hang out and play board games together.’ Let us do our thing.”
Yet others have devoted time to reconceptualizing the role of the Freeman Scholars on campus, drawing off of a motivation to give back to the Freeman and larger University communities.
“I feel like I wouldn’t be here if not for the Freeman Scholarship,” Kanjanakuha said. “Therefore, I feel like I should contribute in some way or the other…but then to say that my contribution is solely motivated by the scholarship would be inaccurate. I think it’s an implicit thing of, I feel like maybe like I should give back, but at the same time I really do care about the Freeman community and Wesleyan community in general.”
Nago has turned to the past to understand where the association should focus its energy by compiling an archive of records of past activities of Freeman Scholars.
“Coming in here, we don’t really have a sense of what this organization has stood for in the past and what it’s like now and how we’re supposed to position ourselves for the wider campus community,” Nago said. “But knowing how we’ve been and how we have come to what we are now, I think it’s an important way to process our position…. At the same time, I think this can be a point of reflection for other students as well.”
It is on this projection outward into the larger University community that scholars’ opinions diverge. Leila S. focused on an individual approach, advocating for scholars to represent their backgrounds within their individual fields.
“I think our role is to try and make sense of how best we can create something meaningful for change within our own fields based on the fact that we were given the opportunity to be here through one, financial means, and two, admissions-wise,” Leila S. said.
Meanwhile, Tan called for scholars to fulfill this role through in-class expressions of their opinions and backgrounds.
“I think it’s to intervene in so much more American-friendly and internationally hostile moments in the classrooms, which I think can be quite prominent in social science classes and humanities classes where there is expected knowledge,” Tan said.
Nguyen pushed for the availability of the Freeman Scholars to serve as resources for other students on campus.
“I think that at the moment, our goal is just to be a group that students can reach out to and a group where you know that people from very different backgrounds are here and willing to talk to you about anything and do anything to promote the awareness of international identity and the importance of international students on campus at Wesleyan as a whole,” Nguyen said.
In reviewing recent positions taken by FASA as a whole, Nago pointed to FASA intervention in the international student affairs restructuring that took place last year, and hopes to continue work in advocating for international student concerns. Kanjanakuha highlighted Asian-centric collaborations like a hot pot night co-hosted with AASC and a trip to A Dong supermarket in West Hartford, as steps to expand outwards and connect with student groups with overlapping interests.
While the direction of change is unclear, many Freeman Scholars agree there does need to be a shift in the way FASA relates to the University community at large, and a redefinition of what it means to be a Freeman Scholar.
“As the Asian community grew more, we became a minority rather than majority, but in our minds that never transitioned properly,” Kanjanakuha said. “I see this as a problem that needs to be tackled, and I think things need to change in order for us to find a place within the community and work alongside other organizations in order to create a greater impact.”
Jocelyn Maeyama can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.