Model Minority Goes to College

March 4, 2010


The story is familiar: Asian American high schoolers toil away night and day, shuttled between school in the daytime, cram schools at night and a multitude of extracurricular sports, music and art classes in between. Tack on a few leadership roles and a volunteer stint or two, and long before they’ve ever taken their first college course or sauntered into their first internship interview, these kids already have overflowing resumes.

Talk about model minority myths. The idea that all Asian Americans follow this (very impressive, albeit exhausting) regimen and mold is not only a generalization, but also the subject of numerous recent studies on higher education. The Boston Globe published a piece just last month about how and why Asian Americans are facing “serious discrimination” in the college admissions process. In other words, lumping the community together under an umbrella stereotype has led to reverse discrimination of high-achieving Asian Americans.

Author Kara Miller, who worked as a reader for Yale’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions, noted that Asian Americans as a whole “tended to get excellent scores, take advantage of AP offerings, and shine in extracurricular activities.” In addition, “they also had hard-knock stories: families that had immigrated to America under difficult circumstances, parents working as kitchen assistants and store clerks, and households in which no English was spoken.”

Based on this assumption, lots of college hopefuls are taking a blow, their “accomplishments diminished” because people whom they’ve never met are working hard too. Though in many ways it may appear that Asian American applicants are getting the short end of the deal by being a part of a much-stereotyped, model-minority demographic, with universities capping Asian American populations at between 15 and 20 percent at Ivy Leagues, the alternative has proven tricky. Lifting that limit has its downsides too.

And that, perhaps, is the more important take-away point of the piece.    

According to The Globe, in California, where Asian Americans make up about 40 percent of all public university students, “some Asian-American students feel that they lost something by going to school at a place where almost half of their classmates look like themselves -- a campus like UCLA. The students said they didn’t feel as well prepared in intercultural skills for the real world.”

So the chicken-and-egg question is this: Do we create these problems for ourselves by embracing community (just typing those words seems odd), or are the imposed assumptions about our ethnicity causing Asian Americans to become more tight-knit? Either way, the problem is clear: you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t -- experiencing college in the midst of too many or not enough Asian Americans both seem to be collegiate handicaps.

Goldilocks would have a hard time figuring this one out too: What’s “just right”?





Joyce, I checked your post out initially very excited because this topic is near and dear to me. The Model Minority myth is fascinating, frustrating, destructive and growing, all at the same time. After reading, I'm now disappointed that it lacked any discussion beyond restating Kara Miller's points (which I realized after searching for her article). Even Miller's article lacked a true call for action or examination of the issue. She notes that "some Asian students" feel that going to a school with a high concentration of Asian students may have caused. Damn, "some students." Who are these students? Not to downplay the thoughts of any individual, or group for that matter, but I'd hope for a little more detail and journalistic savvy from a source that you're drawing your post from. What I immediately thought of was the self-segregation of many Asian groups into our (even) smaller Ethnic enclaves. I admit to spending most of my time with other Pilipinos but my interactions with other members of other communities of color and, for the sake of this issue, other Asian groups certainly didn't make me feel like I was part of a homogenous group. The experiences of each group are informed by socio-economic situations, religions, immigration patterns and histories that would make outsiders say, "damn, and I thought you were all the same because you look alike." Again, if some students at a school like UCLA feel this way, that's valid for them. This doesn't mean that the opportunity to develop cross-cultural competency is not there though - as you know, Asians are quite diverse.    Your chicken or egg analogy is certainly an important question and I was hoping that you would work off of this more. As a California-born Pilipino now living in New York, I have observed that the disaggregation of the Asian identity is more of a left-coast thing for now. There doesn't seem to be the urgency to point out the importance of the difference within the broader Asian-American umbrella and it may be hurting smaller groups. At the same time, the existence of a political bloc of Asian-Americans is very important; we certainly face common struggles and have been grouped together by dominant groups. If we don't band together as a collective, how can the nuanced (and often silenced) voices break through to the policy and decision-makers? These necessary coalitions certainly effect how Asian-Americans as a whole are perceived and those perceptions make coalitions necessary (you're blowing my mind there!). I guess we just have to deal with the reality that having an aggregate community is crucial, despite the issues that come with it. So to end, I don't mean to come off like an ass. I appreciate your efforts to draw attention to this issue and I hope that the dialogue continues. It's obviously complex and requires input from all over the place.