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Project, conference attuned to changing demographics in colleges

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L. Brian Stauffer

The American University Meets the Pacific Century Project, a social science research laboratory guided by U. of I. professors, from left, Nancy Abelmann, Soo Ah Kwon, Tim F. Liao and Adrienne Lo.

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2/29/2012 | Dusty Rhodes, Arts and Humanities Editor | 217-333-0568;

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — At its Feb. 22 meeting, the University of Illinois Student Senate passed a resolution encouraging Facebook users to avoid posting racially insensitive material on a memes page associated with the school. The page administrators voluntarily removed the posts deemed offensive, but the debate continued in the Opinions section of the Daily Illini, a student newspaper. Few of the racially charged memes referred to African-Americans or Latinos; most referred to students of Asian heritage.

sample meme

What is a ‘meme’?
The term “meme” was coined by Richard Dawkins in "The Selfish Gene," his bestselling book reformulating the theory of natural selection, to describe an idea passed from one generation to the next. He defined a meme as “a unit of cultural transmission or a unit of imitation.” On the Internet, a meme can be an image, concept, catchphrase, video, idea or theme that is adapted and mutated as it passes from one person to another. More examples of the kind of memes used on Facebook.

The memes controversy exemplifies the type of issues that are the focus of the American University Meets the Pacific Century Project – a social science research laboratory guided by U. of I. professors Nancy Abelmann (anthropology, Asian American studies, East Asian languages and cultures), Soo Ah Kwon (Asian American studies, human and community development), Tim F. Liao (sociology, statistics) and Adrienne Lo (anthropology). Started in the spring of 2010, the AUPC Project is hosting the first conference to address this topic on March 9-10 (Friday and Saturday), with speakers from colleges in the U.S. and Canada as well as Yonsei University, the oldest private university in South Korea.

The conference will focus on the fastest-growing segments of international students – Asian undergraduates – with presentations on topics ranging from the social conditions in China and South Korea that drive education migration to the ways these students are changing American colleges and universities.

With more than 8,000 international students enrolled last fall, the U. of I. currently has more students from other countries than any other public university in the U.S., and the second highest number overall, after the University of Southern California. In fall 2011, the 3,086 students from China and 1,536 from South Korea made up the majority of the international students at U. of I., according to statistics provided by the school’s International Student and Scholar Services.
These figures represent a shift from even five years ago, when the total number of international students at the U. of I. was 5,146, with most coming from South Korea (1,220) and 931 from China, and a marked change in the university’s demographics.

“The University of Illinois had been one of the schools that had been, comparatively, rather protectionist,” Abelmann said. “The vast majority of our undergrads were not only domestic, but from the state of Illinois.”

“And unlike some campuses of the University of California, with extremely high rates of Asian-Americans, that was not the case here,” Lo said. “Our rates of Asian-Americans on campus were much lower than many comparable universities.”

The goal of the AUPC Project is to analyze the effects of this demographic transformation. The students enrolled in the lab course have focused on a range of topics, including attitudes and interactions in student leadership groups, dining halls, and even a campus club for fans of StarCraft, a popular video game.

“Using student researchers is a weakness in that we can’t pay people to work many hours,” Abelmann said, “but it’s a strength because the students have their feet on the ground. They hear things and know things that faculty might not be able to get at if we were the only researchers.
“We believe that the most important thing is to get some in-depth data on some of these contact zones,” she said. “We’re trying to understand the fabric and complexity of our campus.”

The researchers are interested in every angle – not just the international students’ experiences but also how they affect domestic students, faculty members and the larger community. “We are as interested in the domestic student and faculty response to these students as we are to the experiences of the international students,” Abelmann said.

“This is affecting the entire community,” Lo said. “It’s not just the campus – it’s everywhere: restaurants, stores, car dealerships.”

They have noticed a number of misperceptions about international students, including the notion that domestic students are being denied admission to make room for freshmen whose citizenship lies elsewhere, when in fact the U. of I., like many schools, has simply “added more seats,” Lo said. Nationwide, colleges court international students who pay “full freight.”

 Another mistake domestic students and faculty members can make is regarding Asian immigrants as a homogenous group. For example, South Koreans tend to have had prior experience with the U.S., whether through an “early study abroad” program or by attending an English-language high school in South Korea. Some international students choose to socialize only with students of similar background, while others actively seek friendship with domestic students.

“Our data show that, although many international students would really like to have diverse social circles, they find it extremely difficult to make that happen,” Abelmann said. “Some are very outspoken that domestic students show very little interest in them, and that it’s extremely difficult to interact with them.”

The conference begins at 2 p.m. March 9 (Friday) at the Levis Faculty Center, 919 W. Illinois St., Urbana. In addition to formal presentations, the conference will include two roundtable discussions with faculty members and administrators from the U. of I., Purdue and Michigan State University. The two-day event is free and open to the public; pre-registration is required. Visit for more information.

Editor's note: To contact Nancy Abelmann, email To contact Adrienne Lo, email

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