Main Content

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Who’ve Made A Difference 

Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month has taken the country to new levels of gratification and remembrance by asking hundreds of Americans to reflect on those who have made great strides for equality, representation, and respect. From breaking racial and gender barriers to introducing new aspects of Asian and Pacific Islander culture to the big screens and across radio waves, celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month educates others on the history and accomplishments both past and present, making it one of the most memorable and celebrated months in various regions of the country. 

To commemorate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month this May, read about some of the most influential Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. 

Chien-Shiung Wu (1912 – 1997)

Atomic and Chemical Scientist

Born and raised in Shanghai, China, Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu worked diligently to become an educated woman who would make a difference in the world of science. In 1934, Chien-Shiung graduated at the top of her class with a degree in physics from the National Central University in Nanking, China (now known as Nanjing University) before following her mentor’s guidance to continue her education in the United States. Once accepted into the United States, Dr. Wu enrolled at the University of California Berkeley in 1936 under her academic advisor, Ernest Lawrence, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing the cyclotron particle accelerator. After a few years and getting married, Dr. Wu taught physics at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts and at Princeton University, where she was the first woman hired as faculty in the Physics Department. Shortly afterward, in 1944, Dr. Wu took a job at Columbia University in New York City and joined the Manhattan Project, where she worked towards the creation of the atomic bomb; specifically, improving existing technology for the detection of radiation and the enrichment of uranium in large quantities. Following the war, she continued her research and worked alongside other theoretical physicists. However, due to the overlooking of women, Wu did not receive the 1957 Nobel Prize, although her colleagues did. Known as an early advocate for women in STEM, Wu continued her research through the late 1960s, when she famously stated that even tiny atoms and nuclei did not prefer masculine or feminine treatment. 

Larry Itliong (1913-1977)

American labor organizer and civil rights activist

Born October 25, 1913, in the Pangasinan province of the Philippines, Larry Itliong was raised in a household with five brothers and sisters. Holding only a sixth-grade education, Itliong left his homeland for the United States in hopes of continuing his education. However, upon arriving during the conditions of the Great Depression, Itliong was forced to become a labor worker, where he suffered pervasive racial violence and rhetoric against Filipinos and other Asian immigrants. Working in sectors such as agriculture, cannery, and domestic work, Itliong experienced racism and economic injustice for several years causing him to join forces with César Chávez and Dolores Huerta. Leading thousands of Filipino farmworkers, Itliong organized strikes to fight against racism and unequal pay for grape growers around the Delano, California area. Merging the two unions together, the team organized the United Farm Workers, AFL-CIO (UFW), with Chávez as the director and Itliong as assistant director. After resigning from the UFW due to internal conflicts with Chávez, Itliong continued to organize for workers’ rights by joining other labor movements across the world, including establishing the Paulo Agbayani Retirement Village, a retirement community for aging Filipino farmworkers. Today, Itliong is known as one of the “fathers of the West Coast labor movement” and has inspired other activists to rise against injustices within their labor sectors. 

Yuri Kochiyama (1921-2014)

Political and civil rights activist

Raised in San Pedro, California to first-generation Japanese immigrants, Yuri Kochiyama was forced to be an active member of her school and community from a young age. After the bombing at Pearl Harbor, Kochiyama and her family were moved into incarceration sites resulting in her previously ill father to pass shortly after being denied medical treatment. Placed in an incarceration camp in Jerome, Arkansas, Kochiyama wrote in her diary about her exposure to racism and anger toward the government’s actions. Though she maintained a positive outlook, Kochiyama urged those who were imprisoned to write letters of support to Japanese American soldiers serving in the U.S. military. In 1946, Yuri met her husband and began raising six children while supporting several activist causes across New York City. Living and working in Harlem, Kochiyama made it her mission to expose her children to the Black and Puerto Rican communities’ struggles for freedom, ultimately sparking Kochiyama’s interest in civil rights activism. Learning from other influential activists like Malcolm X, Kochiyama remained committed to the Black freedom struggles including working for the Black Power and Black nationalist organizations. After her husband’s death, Kochiyama moved to Oakland, California to live with her daughter and focused her efforts on the war on terror and Islamophobia. Today, Kochiyama’s efforts have inspired other young civil rights activists across the country and the globe. 

Ajay Bhatt (1957)

Computer Scientist and Inventor

Known to many as the father of the Universal Serial Bus, or USB, Ajay Bhatt is an Indian-born American inventor who has revolutionized how information is shared and processed. Raised in Vadodara, Gujarat, India, Ajay Bhatt received his education from Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. Migrating to the United States shortly after, Bhatt received his master’s degree from the City College of New York and joined Intel in 1990 as a senior staff architect on the chipset architecture team in Folsom, CA. Working diligently to earn his stripes, including the creation of the USB, Bhatt holds hundreds of U.S. and international patents and has received several Achievement in Excellence awards for his contribution to computer science and technology. Categorized as an ‘unlikely rockstar’, Bhatt has been interviewed worldwide and was featured in issues of GQ India, as one of The 50 Most Influential Global Indians. Bhatt’s contributions have inspired students and other computer scientists to continue researching and reaching for the stars, no matter the trials they face. 

Michelle Yeoh (1962)

First Asian Woman Best Actress Oscar Winner

Born to well-endowed parents in Malaysia, Michelle Yeoh was raised in a household of excellence. With her father being the Senator of Malaysia, Yeoh grew up understanding the importance of culture and language. From an early age, Yeoh enrolled in various dance classes and charter schools and ultimately earned her Bachelor of Arts from Manchester Metropolitan University in 1983, majoring in choreography and art. After becoming a beauty pageant winner and runner-up in competitions like the Miss World, Yeoh began acting with Jackie Chan and others starring in action and martial arts films. In 1987, Yeoh decided to retire from acting. However, she returned five years later and began working in various roles and films in Hollywood. By 2022, Michelle was starring in roles that ultimately won her her first Oscar as Best Actress for Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. Yeoh continues to push the boundaries of art and age by shining light on the possibilities that can happen when you believe in yourself. 

ACU Online is proud to celebrate the wonderful contributions Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have made in our diverse and rich communities nationwide. We honor these men and women for their impactful efforts and champion the continuation of recognizing future change-makers for generations to come. 

SHARE: [Sassy_Social_Share type="standard"]