The Paper Trail: Kathleen S. Yep

Kathleen S. Yep
Professor of Asian American Studies
Associate Dean of Faculty

  • Joined Pitzer: 2004
  • Education: Education: PhD, MA, BA, Ethnic Studies University of California, Berkeley
  • Courses include: Nonviolent Social Change, Health Inequities and Racial Politics of Teaching

Professor Kathleen S. Yep’s path to Pitzer started with a case number. The professor of Asian American Studies once planned on becoming a human rights lawyer. A fourth-generation Chinese American, she had studied hate crimes and worked at the state legislature during college. Then, one summer day she read a story in an immigration file that changed the story of her life.

“My grandmother found my grandfather’s immigration paper, and it had his case number from Angel Island. I saw my grandfather almost every day of my life, and he never talked about this. So, I went to the archive and gave them his case number. Suddenly, there was a huge stack of files.

“It turns out my grandfather immigrated when he was eight. As soon as he got off the ship, he was incarcerated, because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. In his papers was the transcript of his interrogation. The government officials asked: ‘How many windows are in your family’s house in China? What direction do they face? How many uncles do you have? How many are left-handed, how many are right-handed?’ And if he didn’t get one of those answers right, he would be deported.

“I saw this transcript. And it gave me a window into history. It gave me a window into his story. It gave me a window into why he always stored food in the garage, why he always wanted to make sure that we had a plan and knew what we wanted to do in our life.

“That shifted my thinking. Law is one way to address social inequities, but so is understanding people’s stories and understanding how context shapes who they are. Then you need to ask, ‘What historical, social, economic factors shaped this person’s story and the social contradictions an individual faces?’

You need to ask, ‘How can we address these social contradictions together?’ And that’s what brought me to Pitzer, because Pitzer has the space to teach classes and to research this process of inquiry and engagement.”

Yep drew on her grandfather’s experiences in her books Outside the Paint: When Basketball Ruled at the Chinese Playground and The Dragon’s Child: A Story of Angel Island. She has also worked to understand—and ease—the transition for people coming to the US to start a new life in a new country. In 2009, Yep established a partnership with Literacy for All of Monterey Park, a nonprofit adult and family literacy program. Since then, Yep and students in her intercollegiate Asian American Studies classes have helped hundreds of immigrants and refugees become US citizens and improve their English language skills. In 2015, the City of Monterey Park honored her work with the Mayor’s Centennial Volunteer Award, citing her “unwavering commitment to improving literacy in this community and dedication to serving others which is inspiring to all.”

For Yep, education can be about many things: critique, inquiry, finding patterns and uncovering root causes. “But ultimately,” she says, “education is about transforming the hope of creating an equitable society into a reality.

This profile was first featured in Pitzer College’s alumni magazine, The Participant. Read the full fall/winter edition online.

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