5 Asian Americans who Changed the World
May 15, 2020
There are many frustrating aspects about our current situation. The lack of community, new challenges to work and schooling, the endless tedium, the list just goes on. But if you ask me, one of the more disheartening effects of COVID-19 is how it causes us to overlook the good things. It’s like an eclipse; blocking out the light and obscuring our vision. Still, as a wise educator once said, “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if only one remembers to turn on the light.”
You might not have realized this, but May is Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month. It’s a time when we recognize the contributions Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans have made to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States. I’ve always been a sucker for history and heroes, and now more than ever we should be looking to the helpers for inspiration. So, I would like to do my part and provide a little light. Here are 5 Asian Americans who changed the world for the better!
Maya Lin is an artist and architect who rose to prominence after designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. Lin created her design while still a student at Yale university, and beat out over 1,400 other entries to win the selection. It’s estimated that over 4 million people visit the memorial each year to pay their respects to the fallen soldiers. Lin would later go on to design another famous monument—the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. Today, Lin remains a celebrated architect while also advocating for environmental sustainability.
Born in Hawaii, Duke Kahanamoku was one of the premier athletes of his day. He was first recognized for his ability as a swimmer, joining the U.S. Olympic swim team in 1912, where he took home a gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle and a silver medal in the men’s 4×200-meter freestyle relay. He would later win even more medals at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, the 1924 Paris Olympics, and the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Yet Kahanamoku is chiefly remembered as the father of international surfing. It was largely thanks to his efforts that the sport found mainstream popularity and continues to be enjoyed worldwide.
Amy Tan is an American author who was born in Oakland, California, in 1952. Though she has written numerous books, her most famous is undoubtedly The Joy Luck Club. The novel, which has been translated into 25 different languages, highlights the relationships of several Chinese women and their Chinese-American daughters. Both the National Book Awards and American Library Association have honored Tan for her work in literature. In addition to writing, Tan also plays in a band called The Rock Bottom Remainders, which features other prominent novelists such as humor columnist Dave Barry and horror author Stephen King.
Dalip Singh Saund
Dalip Singh Saund initially emigrated to the United States to attend the University of Berkeley, where he earned a doctorate degree in mathematics. Despite his education, Saund was frequently denied career opportunities due to widespread anti-immigration prejudice. These experiences would mark him deeply, and Saund spent the next several years fighting discriminatory laws against Indians. His work would eventually lead him to the halls of Congress. In 1956, Dalip Singh Saund became the first Asian American, first Indian American, and first Sikh-American to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
As a child, Steven Chu was fascinated by rockets. This fascination with all things STEM would eventually lead to a distinguished career in physics. After graduating college, Chu became a researcher at Bell Labs where he made significant strides researching the cooling and trapping of atoms with laser light. His discoveries would eventually net him a Nobel Prize in 1997, along with his colleagues Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and William Daniel Phillips. In later years, Chu served as the 12th United States Secretary of Energy from 2009 to 2013.
For the Students
Now that you’ve met these remarkable people, have your students explore their lives and legacies as well!
- Have students select one of these individuals and create a digital collage to represent their contributions to America.
- Ask students to study one of these people and imagine if one variable in their life were changed how it could have affected the trajectory of their life. Have them create an alternate timeline of their life!
- Has the person your students are studying written a book? Appeared in a movie? Instruct them to find a piece of appropriate media and share it with the class.
- Do your students know another Asian or Pacific Islander who deserves to be on this list? Have them present their candidate to the class and make a the case for their inclusion.
- Host a trivia event with another class and share your learning with younger students!