Inspire, Empower, and Activate: ITASA’s “Coming of Age”

By: Amy Lee & Hanna Huang

It started with something simple: the idea that Taiwanese American college students from across the nation needed an organized way to get together and celebrate what it meant to be “Taiwanese.” Throughout the eighteen years since the Intercollegiate Taiwanese American Students Association’s (ITASA) creation, the organization has grown from a private startup by a small group of founders to one of the oldest and biggest intercollegiate Asian American organizations in the nation. ITASA alumni hail from more than fifty colleges and universities in the United States.

On July 15th 1990, “groups of second generation Taiwanese Americans were identified to start an intercollegiate Taiwanese Council. [They] nicknamed [themselves] ‘seeds,’ a term used as the agents to organically grow the Taiwanese community including a Taiwanese American Collegiate Network,” recalls Winston Yang, one of the organizers for the subsequent 1991 meeting of the ITASA “seeds.” During the 1991 meeting, about twenty representatives from schools like Harvard, Columbia, Yale, U Penn, Smith, Rutgers, and NYU converged on the campuses of Columbia University for three days.

Among the yellowed sheets of notebook paper Yang has preserved from the meeting, the strokes of someone’s neat, cursive handwriting documented the dreams and visions for ITASA. “I wish that there existed a strong Taiwanese identity” was the dream, the glue that brought them all together. The vision for ITASA was for more than just a network of students with Taiwanese background; the organization also sprang from the need for students to explore their identities as Taiwanese Americans, an arena for expressing the love for their heritage with others.

Most importantly, the organization has proven to help Taiwanese Americans realize what it means to identify as such. John, a contributor of well-known Asian American blog 8Asians, stated in his post about the “Write in Taiwanese” 2010 Census Campaign, “what really galvanized me as an adult to self-identify as a Taiwanese American was when in 1995 I attended an ITASA conference at Harvard and heard a speech entitled, “How I Became a Taiwanese-American and Why It Matters.” From attending ITASA events, participants are exposed to a plethora of people and resources in the Taiwanese American and Asian American community that they would not have been aware of otherwise.

Of the many different events and programs that ITASA utilizes to engage the Taiwanese American community, it cannot be argued that the regional conferences are the most inspiring. Eric Lin, current Chair of ITASA’s Board of Directors recalls the ITASA 2007 West Coast Conference at Stanford as his most memorable experience. For three days, Lin did everything “from transporting luggage and introducing speakers to figuring out why the power generator wasn’t working for the night market.” Aside from conferences, ITASA also organizes leadership retreats, mixers and provides regional grants for intercollegiate events.

Despite being an organization with an established history of events and programming, this year brings new additions. The new Philanthropy department of the organization was created this year with the goal and purpose to provide avenues of collaboration within ITASA as well as between ITASA and the communities it serves. One of this year’s projects is “Footprints: Imprints between Generations.” “Footprints” will be a collaborative and interactive web- based contest that collects reflections of intergenerational relationships between Taiwanese Americans. The mission is to engage Taiwanese Americans of all ages and to help bridge the gap between generations.

Presently, ITASA’s National Board of officers convenes twice a year to update each other on the progress of each division as well as discuss other organizational issues. Due to the board being so spread out, most communication and projects are done virtually through phone conferences and e-mail. “We’ve used a number of great online tools such as GoogleDocs, Skype, and more to stay in contact. The experience has definitely opened my eyes to new ways of communication with others,” says Andrew Chou, a District Chair and Assistant Philanthropy Director from The University of Texas at Austin. Despite the difficulties involved with having such a dispersed board, many like Lin state that their involvement has helped them develop leadership skills necessary to help bridge the “inherent distance barriers that causes the National Board to have little to none face-to-face time.” Quite a feat considering most of the students involved in ITASA often juggle full-time schoolwork along with involvement in numerous other campus organizations, internships, and part-time jobs.

There seems to be something about this organization that has enabled it to evoke such a sense of activism, motivation and persistence in those who become involved. Sandra Liu Huang, former president and board member, fondly recounts her journey from the West Coast to the ITASA 2000 East Coast Conference at Brown University as her most memorable ITASA experience. Huang and her friends encountered a massive winter blizzard, but determined to reach their destination; they took a train from San Jose to San Francisco airport in order to catch a flight to Detroit. The group ended up stuck in Detroit overnight and even ended up boarding a flight that ended up bringing them back to Detroit. However, they eventually made it to Providence 36 hours later, just in time to triumphantly present the closing video for the conference banquet.

When we asked ITASA Alumni “What made you want to be a part of ITASA” the responses overwhelmingly evoked the same message—meeting people just like them who were as passionate about their Taiwanese heritage. What else would keep an organization running for eighteen years strong but passion? As an alum reflecting on what has brought ITASA to where it is now, Yang says that, “one of the most important things that was emphasized was continuity and support. Without that, it would have failed, and it makes me very proud to see that all the right people were there who had the strength to make this happen.”

Inspiration, past & present:

“I was inspired to create a group that would promote the Taiwanese American identity. When I first arrived at college, I met a lot of other students who had the same or similar background as I did, but did not identify themselves as Taiwanese. I thought, “If people who have family and ancestors from Taiwan do not recognize the importance of being Taiwanese, then what is the future of the Taiwanese heritage and culture? What is the future of Taiwan?” We have a common background that we should be proud of and proud to promote. ITASA was founded for this purpose.” — Ula Hwang, ITASA Alum

“I think ITASA definitely has inspired me to pursue a career in public service. Having worked with so many people from across the country and played a role in shaping student’s perceptions of the critical issues facing the Taiwanese American community, I am imbued with a sense of satisfaction about where our community is today. At the same time, I’m excited to serve our community in the future – especially in terms of transportation policy (a passion of mine). I believe transportation policy can be utilized to better bring together communities and help spread awareness of the pressing and distinct issues facing all multicultural communities in the United States. This is especially true for areas dense with new immigrants.” — Lester Kao, current ITASA President

Explore a timeline of ITASA conferences (click to enlarge):

Read more about ITASA’s history on Wikipedia:

Check out a 2011 ITASA conference in your region!

East Coast Conference at Princeton University: Take it to the Top

Midwest Conference at Northwestern University: Taiwan Unwrapped

West Coast Conference at University of California, Berkeley: Next Stop: Taiwan

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