First-year student Neel Iyer didn’t have a robust Asian American and Pacific Islander community to lean on while attending high school in a Georgia suburb.
“There weren’t too many of us in high school, so we didn’t have a consolidated community,” Iyer recalled. “It was a phenomenal change coming to USC.”
Iyer, who is majoring in biochemistry and international relations, immediately found support from campus Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, including the PEER mentorship program at Asian Pacific American Student Services, known as APASS.
“I feel I can actively practice my culture and my religion now without fear of judgment,” he said of APASS, one of several cultural centers operated by USC’s Student Equity and Inclusion Programs. “I’ve grown to accept myself more. We’re all motivated to support our community.”
Iyer is just one of countless USC students who found support and community through the cultural center in the last 40 years. To celebrate those students and commemorate the milestone anniversary, the USC Asian American and Pacific Islander community commissioned a mural for the space, within the Gwynn Wilson Student Union building.
Meeting Asian American and Pacific Islander students where they are
Los Angeles native Dave Young Kim, a prolific Korean American artist whose work “draws from cultural history, family stories and personal experiences in depicting images of identity,” has always been fascinated with the ideas of home and belonging. Kim was the ultimate choice to create the piece for APASS, which is a “home away from home” and dedicated support network for many. (Story continues after video.)
The creative process began in early fall 2021, and USC student input was paramount in every step. Kim met with various Asian American and Pacific Islander students, staff and an APASS mural committee, seeking to gather the history, experiences and perspectives that would guide the direction of the piece.
“It was challenging for me to figure out a way to build something that would be meaningful to a student today as they looked at the wall,” said Kim. “I wanted something hopeful but real, and to really meet the students where they actually are.”
Common themes shared by numerous Asian American and Pacific Islander-identifying students
The personal stories and experiences shared by numerous Asian American and Pacific Islander-identifying USC students served as his inspiration over the eight-month process.
“There were many common themes: identity challenges, a desire to embrace home culture, being othered, the harms of the ‘model minority’ myth, finding belonging, racism internally and externally,” Kim reflected. “All things that are very specific to Asian Americans but universal as well, and all which I could personally relate to as a child of immigrants who figured out his way with this very cityscape as a background.”
‘Passage’: An homage to Asian American and Pacific Islander history and legacy
The resulting mural, titled “Passage,” depicts flowers native to various regions in Asia. A red-and-white circle motif the floating in the far corners represents the sun and moon and the passage of time, Kim said.
Background imagery connected to place includes the San Gabriel Mountains. Waves also represent the L.A. River and Pacific Ocean but also reference immigration and travel, with “the gradient of color in the waves denoting history, and passing on to the next generation,” Kim explained.
Iyer, who shared his own story with Kim this spring, said the new mural will brighten up the space at APASS, which is already a favorite hangout for many Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students.
“It was honestly empowering because I got to tell my story for the first time since coming to college, and emphasize what’s important to my identity and heritage,” Iyer said. “I think this mural brings together all of our AAPI subcommunities on campus.”
The final installed piece spans 34 feet across the entrance of APASS — a grand-scale celebration of identity and welcome to all students who visit the cultural center.
The mural can be viewed during a reception from 2-4 p.m. Monday, May 2, in the Asian Pacific American Student Services cultural center in Room 410 of the Gwynn Wilson Student Union building, or any time afterward.