Cultivating community through the Asian Faculty & Staff Association

AFSA co-chairs Cristina Packard, Atika Syed on how their organization fosters a sense of belonging at TU

By Rebecca Kirkman on May 16, 2023

Two women stand outside on steps
Cristina Packard, left, lecturer in the Department of Mathematics, and Atika Syed, APIMEDA coordinator in the Center for Student Diversity, aim to foster a sense of belonging on campus through the Asian Faculty & Staff Association. (Alex Wright / Towson University)

On a sunny day this spring, several members of the Towson University Asian Faculty & Staff Association (AFSA) took a lunchtime walk across campus ending at the Center for the Arts to view “The Aesthetics of Disappearance,” the Asian Arts & Culture Center’s exhibition by Tristan Cai.

In it, a series of digitally manipulated archival photographs draw attention to the forgotten history of domestic indentured servants—historically called houseboys—and their exploitation by British colonialism in Singapore from the 1850s to the 1930s.

The event was one of several the organization, which provides fellowship and supports personal and professional growth for faculty and staff of Asian origin, has held in partnership with the Asian Arts & Culture Center.

“Even though we’re a social club, we’re also a resource,” explains Cristina Packard, AFSA co-chair and mathematics lecturer who joined the organization in 2018. “We’re all working together—because together we’re stronger.”

Working with the Asian Arts & Culture Center is just one example of how the group breaks down silos across campus. 

“We’re working on creating more programs, connecting with community partners and doing more collaborative projects for the ultimate goal of providing Asian faculty and staff more visibility,” says Atika Syed.

Syed is an AFSA co-chair and the Asian, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern and Desi American (APIMEDA) coordinator with the Center for Student Diversity (CSD). 

Since joining TU in summer 2022 as the university’s first APIMEDA coordinator, Syed has jumped into opportunities for partnership across campus. Often, that means drawing on support from AFSA members. 

Earlier this spring, she coordinated Stop Asian Hate, an interdisciplinary panel discussion with Yu-Ling Shao, director of the TU Health Center; Christina Bishop, president of TU’s Asian-interest sorority Alpha Sigma Rho; Miho Iwata, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice; and Mohammad Suaidi, an adjunct professor in the Department of Theatre Arts.

Hosted by CSD, the Office of Civic Engagement & Social Responsibility, and the Asian Arts & Culture Center, the event was so well attended, especially by students, that there are hopes for follow-ups in the future. 

“It’s not a problem that’s going to go away overnight,” Packard says. 

But in the future, the chairs hope to empower the students to take charge. “I told them, ‘You are the leaders; you are the change-makers now,’” Syed says. “’We are going to be your support, but we want you guys to lead the conversation.’”

Group of people pose holding cupcakes
Faculty and staff attend the Asian Faculty & Staff Association's last meeting of the spring term on May 10, 2023. (Photo by Kanji Takeno)

With four meetings a term ranging from walks around campus and social opportunities over a shared meal to advocacy and educational events and even a book club—last summer they read the award-winning memoir “Crying in H Mart” by Korean American musician Michelle Zauner—the group aims to support the many interests and needs of the diverse Asian faculty and staff on campus.

“Asia is this enormous continent with so many distinct countries with their own traditions, and just because you're Asian doesn't mean you know all of Asia,” Packard says. “Being a part of AFSA, I’m finding that as I’m meeting people, I’m learning things I had no idea about. There is so much we can all learn from each other.”

The indentured servants of Singapore featured in the Asian Arts & Culture Center exhibition are just one example, offering a previously unknown perspective on the Asian experience for the AFSA members in attendance.

Most importantly, though, the organization creates a sense of belonging for its members within the broader TU community.

“Human nature appreciates belonging,” Packard says. “We like to belong, to have each other to lean on, to have each other to bounce ideas off of and to feel that support network.”

With so much time spent at work, cultivating that support among TU faculty and staff is critical, Syed adds.

“If you don't have that sense of belonging, you feel isolated. And then when you feel isolated, it affects your psychology and your productivity level goes down,” she says. “If I didn't have that connection or that sense of belonging, then it would be very difficult for me to be creative, to be productive and to stay motivated.”

AFSA and the other student, faculty and staff affinity groups at TU increase the sense of belonging by offering institutional support—financially and otherwise—through the Office of Inclusion & Institutional Equity.

“It makes it feel like we really do have support from the top down,” Packard says. “Through that support we can help each other, and it multiplies the good feelings. It's like a spiral upward.”