A series of virtual events celebrating Asian American culture and addressing the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes across the United States will be presented to the Lawrence University community in the coming days and weeks.

The events, honoring May as Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, are being organized by Lawrence’s Pan-Asian Organization (PAO).

Reese Lavajo ’23, a biology major from Ingleside, Illinois, is a PAO event organizer who has taken the lead in putting together the virtual events. These are conversations that are more important than ever as Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been subjected to growing discrimination and abuse.

“As Asian Americans, Asians, and Pacific Islanders, obviously this is a huge problem and it’s very prevalent, especially in these times,” Lavajo said. “We are taking on the responsibility of bringing it to the forefront and saying, ‘Hey, this is a problem; we need to fix it and listen to these voices that are being offended and hurt. This is coming from our own experiences living in America and identifying as Asian or Pacific Islander. It’s a way to uplift voices that are often put to the side.”

The PAO’s AAPI Heritage Month events, all at 5 p.m. and lasting one hour, include:

April 29: What is AAPI Heritage Month?

May 6: Asian American History Screening

May 13: Anti-Asian Hate Crimes Discussion

May 20: Culture & Identity Discussion

May 27: AAPI Cultural Dinner Night

All events will be hosted through Zoom. To get the Zoom link, email lauricefrancine.r.lavajo@lawrence.edu.

Lavajo said the events are the latest outreach for a student organization that is looking to grow its presence on the Lawrence campus.

For Lavajo personally, PAO has provided a needed outlet, and they want others who identify as Asian to feel that connection.

“Coming to Lawrence, I really needed that sense of belonging, and to have a support system of people who share my experiences being Asian living in America,” Lavajo said. “That’s really important to me. That’s why I Joined PAO, and I’ve made a lot of friends because of that.”

Lavajo, who is Filipino, said they grew up in a predominantly white community and only had a handful of Asian American friends through high school. Getting involved in Lawrence’s PAO was a chance to widen that path while also stepping forward as an advocate for others.

“As an event coordinator, I saw an opportunity to broaden not only other people’s horizons and bring awareness and support for Asian identities, but I also wanted to broaden my own horizons,” Lavajo said. “Most of my friends are Filipino like me. Through PAO, I really diversified my friend group. There are people from Nepal, from Vietnam that I’ve met. I had my first encounters with Hmong people through PAO. It’s really exciting to get these new experiences and learn about other cultures and traditions other than my own, and just have a safe space for all these different voices.”

PAO members meet regularly, sometimes for social events, sometimes to share and celebrate cultures, sometimes for wellness purposes. Guest speakers have addressed topics ranging from cultural identities to mental health to the dynamics of international relationships.

“We want to make sure there’s an educational and learning aspect in every event we have,” Lavajo said. “We’re a fairly small org, but we’re trying to grow as a club. We’ve got quite a few first-years joining this year, which is really exciting to me.”