The Asian American Experience on College Campuses
Reviewed by Angelique Geehan
On the whole, Asian American students succeed academically, outperforming all other students on the SAT and ACT and graduating from college at the highest rate of all racial and ethnic groups tracked. That statistical success can disguise the diversity of Asian American experiences within higher education.
Asian American students come from many ethnic groups, with wide variation in culture and socioeconomic status. While nearly three quarters of Korean Americans aged 18-24 are enrolled in college, less than half of Filipino Americans in that age range attend college.
In addition to societal pressure to fit a “model minority” stereotype, Asian American students face discrimination and the threat of violent hate crimes.
Academic wins can also obscure the mental health issues many Asian American students experience. Good grades don't send the same warning signals as cutting classes. In addition to familial pressure to succeed and societal pressure to fit a "model minority" stereotype, Asian American students face discrimination and the threat of violent hate crimes.
The past year's rise in anti-Asian hate crimes shines a spotlight on the challenges faced by Asian American college students who were previously excluded from conversations on equity gaps in higher education. To understand how Asian American students are grappling with these issues, we spoke with Simon Tam, a musician, activist, and author focused on empowering Asian American artists.
Interview With Simon Tam
Simon Tam is an author, musician, and activist. He is the founder of Asian American band The Slants as well as The Slants Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering Asian American artists who incorporate activism into their work. Tam's work has been highlighted across more than 150 countries and in over 3,000 media features in outlets such as Rolling Stone, TIME, NPR, BBC, and The New York Times.
"Asian American" encompasses a large and highly diverse population. What challenges would you say members of this community share?
Anytime one tries to group together a large and diverse population, some predictable challenges will arise. For example, some aspects of the group will be more visible than others, meaning some people will receive more focus, attention, and recognition than others.
Our community is often seen as foreign, exotic, or un-American, despite the fact Asian immigrants have been in the United States since the 1700s.
In the case of Asian Americans, this often means that lesser-known communities (such as the Nepalese and Burmese) receive fewer resources, less attention, and less recognition than other more visible communities (such as the Chinese and Japanese).
What ends up happening is that the data will show "Asians" as an overall group of people doing well when, in reality, the experiences from different communities are entirely unique and often based on other factors beyond ethnic identity. This makes the struggles of communities that are already marginalized even more invisible.
There are a couple of main challenges Asian Americans generally share. The first is the model minority myth, or the assumption and stereotype that Asians are doing well. This often means that fewer resources are directed toward communities in need.
Another challenge is that our community is often seen as foreign, exotic, or un-American, despite the fact Asian immigrants have been in the United States since the 1700s and played a crucial role in developing the country's infrastructure.
How would you characterize the Asian American higher education experience?
Some Asian American communities have done better than others as a whole. For example, East Asian communities, such as second- and third-generation Chinese and Japanese, tend to overperform in higher education compared to groups like Filipino Americans, who have far less representation.
Some Asian students suffer from higher rates of depression due to bullying [and] negative stereotypes.
This has resulted in a complex problem with policies that take race into consideration. At some schools where Asian representation is strong, Asian students are disfavored no matter what community they're from because the data is aggregated. At other schools with less minority representation, Asian students may be favored.
It just depends on the school, its selection criteria, and often the resources available in the local community.
Culturally speaking, some Asian students suffer from higher rates of depression due to bullying, negative stereotypes, and invisible pressures, like the burden of feeling they must represent their community at large.
How has this experience changed over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic?
The pandemic has exposed many of the weaknesses in the education system, from disparities based largely on wealth, to different learning styles and how the system is sometimes ill-equipped to meet students' needs. For example, throughout the pandemic, anti-Asian rhetoric, discrmination, and racism have steadily increased.
However, many faculty and staff have not been equipped to help their students because of the assumption that Asians overperform in school and therefore don't need assistance, resources, or community centers.
How do you recommend Asian American students cope with the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S.?
Asian and Asian American students are the most bullied demographic in U.S. schools. More than half (54%) have experienced bullying in the classroom; they're also three times more likely to face bullying on the internet than other groups.
It's important that students report attacks so they may be documented (Stop AAPI Hate has been one of the leads on this). In addition, students should turn to community organizations for support and possibly seek counseling or other help to process these attacks.
What should Asian American college students do if confronted with racist behavior or attacks, on or off campus?
Students can often use humor to diffuse the situation and tell the perpetrator to stop. When possible, students should walk away or disengage to avoid harm. They should also call for help or bring more attention to the situation so that there can be witnesses and so that they can possibly receive intervention from bystanders, especially from faculty or staff.
What should colleges' top goals be in regard to Asian American students?
Colleges should prioritize a safe environment for all of their students, regardless of ethnicity. That said, the best way to do this is by understanding the unique challenges of each community group and by helping address those issues using qualitative and quantitative data.
Rather than being dismissive, colleges should take all claims seriously and provide students the help they need in order to give them the best chance of success.
Do you have any book recommendations on the Asian American experience for college students?
- "The Making of Asian America: A History" by Erika Lee
- "Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco's Chinatown" by Nayan Shah
- "Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties" by Karen L. Ishizuka
- "Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture" by Robert G. Lee
- "The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority" by Ellen D. Wu
- "Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White" by Frank H. Wu
- "Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People" by Helen Zia
Angelique Geehan works to support and repair the connections people have to themselves and their families, communities, and cultural practices. A queer, Asian, gender-binary, nonconforming parent, Geehan founded Interchange, a consulting group that offers anti-oppression support. She organizes as part of several groups, including National Perinatal Association's Health Equity Workgroup, the Health and Healing Justice Committee of the National Queer and Trans Asian and Pacific Islander Alliance, QTPOC+ Family Circle, and Batalá Houston.
Feature Image: Hill Street Studios / Stone / Getty Images