(L to R) Kang Tongbi ’1909, Mae Yih ’51, Mabel Lee ’1916, and Athena Abadilla ’20

The month of May plays host to a number of celebrations and special holidays, including the designation of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month by the Library of Congress. Why May? On May 7, 1843, the United States welcomed the first Japanese to immigrate. Twenty years later, on May 10, the transcontinental railroad was completed, mostly by Chinese immigrants. 

We celebrate Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month this year by honoring the many Asian/Pacific American alumnae who have attended since women’s rights activist and journalist Kang Tongbi ’1909 was admitted as Barnard’s first Asian student. Notably, Mabel Lee ’1916 became the first Chinese-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University. Lee was also an advocate for women’s right to vote, which became law in 1920 — all while being unable to vote herself because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited Chinese-American women from voting until 1943.

We asked an alumna and a current student — Mae Yih ’51, the first Chinese American elected to a state legislature anywhere in the U.S., and religion major Athena Abadilla ’20 — about the Asian or Pacific Islander heroes they’re honoring this month. 

Mae Yih ’51 | Former member of both house and senate of the Oregon legislature  (1977-2013)
Cultural Icon | Her father

“My father [Chun Woo Dunn, pictured, in 1940] always told us that hard work and studying was the way to a good future. He was a country boy who grew up not far from Shanghai, and he was an apprentice in a shop in Shanghai because his family couldn’t afford to send him to middle school. But after he did his chores at night, he lit a candle and studied the English dictionary. Can you imagine trying to learn English from a dictionary? I think that really showed dedication, foresight, and hard work. He became a salesman and built his own factory when he was 24 years old because he decided there was no future for him working as an apprentice, or for an employer. He built three cotton and wool manufacturing plants. The very first rayon manufacturing plant in China was built by him. He was right. If we didn’t have a sound education or I hadn’t finished Barnard, I don’t think I would have been elected to the legislature.”

Athena Abadilla ’20 | Liga Filipina, Mālama Hawai’i student organization member 
Cultural Icon | Geena Rocero 

“The unapologetic existence and activism of Geena Rocero has profoundly impacted my own identity formation within the Filipinx diaspora, especially here in the context of Barnard and New York City. Geena Rocero is a Philippine-born transgender woman who immigrated to the United States. A few years into living, working, and hiding her authentic self while here, Geena Rocero came out to the public in honor of International Transgender Day of Visibility (March 31). The way she weaves authentic traditions and cultural norms of pre-colonial Philippines into her public work here inspires me and others whom I look up to within the Filipinx-American community.”