Laughter and conversation rang out from the typically quiet study hall of Oakes Learning Center as students gathered for fragrant food, painting, and karaoke. 

The Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month Event was hosted by the Kuya Ate Mentorship Program (KAMP) and Community Unified Student Network (CUSN) on May 26. The organizers had one goal: to create a space to build connections between students and AAPI identifying organizations while celebrating AAPI pride. 

The night was emceed by students Jeremiah Joson and John Venzon, who are both Chancellor’s Undergraduate Interns for CUSN and KAMP, respectively. They were also the event’s main planners.  

“I just think of family and that’s kind of what I’m seeing today. Like a lot of new people meeting together,” Joson said. “A lot of people are catching up with each other, just making sure everybody’s good.”

Attendees mingled with representatives from each organization. Tables displayed free hand-outs, such as notebooks, stickers, and fresh strawberries. 

Kate Pua, a 2021 UC Santa Cruz graduate and member of Anakbayan, described the vulnerable experience for AAPI students arriving on campus for the first time. Through joining organizations, Pua talked of its transformative impact on one’s identity. 

Organizations tabling at the event were Anakbayan, GABRIELA Santa Cruz, ALAY, aKDPhi sorority, SOPi sorority, the Redwood Free Market, and the AAPI Resource Center. Members of the Asian Pacific Islander Student Association (APISA), Bayanihan, the Korean American Student Association (KASA), and the Vietnamese Student Association (VSA) were also in attendance. 

“[Students are] looking for a sense of belonging to something, especially AAPI students, and you’re probably looking for a piece of home here,” Pua said. “It’s definitely important to be connected to anything that you feel comfortable with, especially if it connects to your AAPI roots.” 

Attendees were also offered an array of food from different Asian countries, from chicken Katsu and spam musubi to pineapple fried rice and vegetarian spring rolls. 

Providing guests with food wasn’t only a practical part of hosting a campus event, but a cultural experience in its own right. Drawing on his own experiences from his Filipino background, Joson sees food as a way to show love. 

“I’m half Filipino. Our culture is big on food as a community. [When] you walk into a Filipino household, they don’t ask you, ‘Oh, how’re you doing?’ They offer you a plate of food,” Joson said. “Food brings people together.” 

The final portion of the night featured the open-mic, which began with a rendition of “Beautiful Girls” by Sean Kingston, performed by Venzon and Joson. Performances that followed celebrated both AAPI heritage and the importance of togetherness. As the performers sang, the audience held up phone flashlights and cheered in encouragement. 

After nearly the entire room got up to dance the cha-cha slide, members took a final group photo that captured the joy felt by the attendees. 

“Even through the masks, you still see the smiles,” said Venzon. “Everyone’s meeting new people. And communities that haven’t touched each other for like years are […] finding an intersection. And that’s really fulfilling.”