2022-23 Don T. Nakanishi Award for Outstanding Engaged Scholarship Awarded to Graduate Student Brian Kohaya and Undergraduate Student Steven Tran

Dear Colleagues, Alumni, and Friends,


I am very pleased to announce that Graduate Student Brian Kohaya and Undergraduate Student Steven Tran are the recipients of the 2022-23 Don T. Nakanishi Award for Outstanding Engaged Scholarship in Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies at UCLA.


Graduate Recipient


Brian KohayaBrian Kohaya is a student in the Masters of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) Program. He graduated in 2018 with a B.A. in Psychology and Asian American Studies from UCLA. Those who nominated Brian highly regarded him for his deep commitment in using research to address the housing needs of vulnerable Asian American communities in various ethnic enclaves throughout Los Angeles. In addition, his work experience, genuine care for community-building, and curiosity for understanding urban problems exemplifies how he is building bridges between campus and community, in turn making a difference for Asian American communities.


This past year, Brian served as a teaching assistant for the Asian American Studies 20W course and led his students through a full-quarter long research project. He divided the section into 5 subgroups who each focused on key ethnic enclave neighborhoods or ethnoburbs, such as Thai Town and Monterey Park. Not only did the students do archival, library, and public documents research, but they also conducted field work with community-based organizations such as interviews of executive directors and other community members and leaders. "Their presentation and report were beyond exemplary. This kind of engaged and interdisciplinary rigor is highly impressive for faculty and graduate students to accomplish. And here was a group of undergraduates - many science, technology, engineering, and math majors with little to no prior experience with Asian American Studies - in a lower-division General Education course who, in less than 10 weeks, Brian had trained and inspired to be commendable engaged scholars themselves," said one of his nominators.


Prior to starting the MURP Program, he worked as the office manager for the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC). "Brian developed an intimate understanding of our holistic approach to community development and has been eager to put his knowledge into practice," said a nominator. He regularly sought opportunities to support the Little Tokyo community, such as becoming one of LTSC's representatives on the Day of Remembrance committee. He worked with many major community organizations to recognize the legacy of Executive Order 9066 and acknowledge the lasting trauma it caused to the community. He led fundraising campaigns for Project by Project and the Nisei Week Foundation where he raised over $30,000 between the two organizations. He also served as the Education Manager for Project by Project where he conducted workshops for young Asian Americans to engage with their identity and learn about Asian American history.


"It is an honor to receive the Nakanishi Award. Professor Nakanishi's tenure battle is a reminder to always challenge oppressive systems and to fight for what is right. I am humbled to be part of his legacy and strive to continue being an engaged member of my local Asian American community," said Brian Kohaya.


Undergraduate Recipient


Steven TranSteven Tran graduated this June 2023 with a B.A. in Asian American Studies, with magna cum laude honors from UCLA. This Fall, he will continue at UCLA and start the Master's Program in Urban and Regional Planning. Those who nominated Steven underscored his extraordinary dedication to identifying solutions to help low-income and underrepresented Asian American communities, by drawing clear connections between his research interests, campus and community activism.


As a low-income, first-generation college transfer student, Steven stood out by enrolling in the Asian American Studies capstone class his very first year at UCLA. The class is a research seminar that facilitates students' development of a quarter-long research project and is usually taken by many majors and minors towards the end of their undergraduate career. Steven's capstone project focused on Sacramento's Elk Grove Unified School District as a case study to highlight the importance of disaggregating Asian American demographic data. He compared the test scores and college readiness of students at Valley High School and Franklin High School, drawing from neighborhood demographics and average household income based on zip code to demonstrate why disaggregating Asian American demographic data into ethnic group data is important for understanding differential access to college education.


Steven developed his capstone project into a full senior thesis entitled, "SEAAcramento: Understanding How US Policies Affect Southeast Asian American Education in Sacramento County." In his Critical Refugee Studies class, he worked with a small group to produce a 24-minute podcast episode titled, "Forgotten Narratives: Collective Memories and the Vietnam War." He was also a journalist intern for Capitol Weekly, where he published an article, "Questions raised about CA data on Southeast Asian students," in effect translating his Asian American Studies research for a wider, policy-minded readership. His research makes significant interventions by incorporating a critical refugee studies framework, pushing against a deficiency model and instead contextualizing Southeast Asian American student needs within a longer history of US empire, refugee displacement, and economic underdevelopment. "His research promises to have important policy implications, both in regards to university admissions policies as well as state- and nation-level affirmative action programs," said one of his nominators.


Steven also led a team of interns in survey research, where students developed relationships with stakeholders and analyzed data for the Pacific Asian Consortium in Employment (PACE). The research findings were pivotal for helping PACE figure out what areas in the San Gabriel Valley had a critical need for a child-care center as they are actively looking to develop one.


On campus, Steven was part of the Asian American Studies Department's first Undergraduate Leadership Committee cohort, which liaisons between the students and faculty. He also served as one of the Logistics Coordinators for the Southeast Asian Students for OrgaNizing (SEASON) Conference and as the Professional Outreach Coordinator for Southeast Asian Transfer Enrichment Day (SEATED). In addition, he has been a student activist with the Southeast Asian Campus Learning and Retention (SEA CLEAR), the Vietnamese Student Union (VSU), and VSU's High School Student Conference (VSU HSC).


"Thank you to the Asian American Studies Center for selecting me as I am humbled to be the recipient of the Nakanishi Award. Professor Don Nakanishi's work throughout his lifetime has been critical in the development of the Asian American Studies field, and I am one of the many students that are here today because of it. I am excited to continue upholding our collective vision in uplifting our Asian American and Pacific Islander communities through engaged scholarship and community praxis!" said Steven Tran.


It is the pleasure of the Asian American Studies Center to recognize Brian Kohaya and Steven Tran for their outstanding practical research, publications, teaching, training, and educational service to Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.


Through the generosity of UCLA faculty, students, staff, and alumni as well as community leaders, an endowment was established that honors the late Professor Emeritus Don T. Nakanishi, who served on the UCLA faculty for thirty-five years and who ably directed the Asian American Studies Center from 1990-2010. Among his invaluable contributions to Asian American Studies, Professor Nakanishi co-founded two, national publications: Amerasia Journal (1971) and AAPI Nexus Journal: Asian American and Pacific Islander Policy, Practice, and Community Research (2003). Professor Nakanishi published widely in the areas of Asian American politics and education, mentored thousands of students, and provided professional and community-based service locally, nationally, and internationally.


The Nakanishi Award includes a $2,500 cash prize award for each recipient. The award rotates annually between faculty and students. The faculty award will be given during the 2023-2024 academic year.


Please join us in congratulating Brian Kohaya and Steven Tran!


Best wishes,

Karen Umemoto

Director & Professor