April 13, 2005

Asian Students Respond to High Academic Pressures

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Do colleges expect more from Asian students? Many, including Asian students themselves, say no. But a feeling among Asian students that they may be facing particularly harsh academic pressures has led to the creation of the Cornell University Asian and Asian American Campus Climate Task Force.

Wai-Kong Wong, a psychologist at Gannett, explained that the task force’s goal is “to see if students of Asian descent have particular issues that are more prevalent in their community and whether or not they are, in fact, different from other groups of students. If so, how are they are different? We are looking for institutional and climate change.”

Wong attributes a lot of the pressures descending on Asian students to the idea of the model minority.

As explained by Prof. Derek Chang, history, the model minority concept is the perception that Asian students are “supposed to work hard, not complain, and do well.”

Prof. Thuy Tu, history of art, elaborated on the history of the model minority concept, explaining that the “concept has been around since the 1960’s and it hasn’t gone away. Asian students have gone to elite colleges and that enforces it. It’s part of our popular consciousness now.”

According to the Asian and Asian American Campus Climate Task Force Report, there is a perceived lack of awareness of the reality and impact of racism and stereotypes have on students of Asian descent. Scholars believe that this model minority concept coupled with the popular conception that “as long as they’re doing well academically, we don’t have to worry about them” has very negative repercussions.

“Stereotypes are internalized and many students of Asian descent see themselves as less vulnerable to the stressors to which other students are prone. They see themselves less in need of support. Often, when they encounter difficulties, they feel more embarrassment, more shame. As a result, they don’t seek help when they need it or until things get really bad,” Wong said.

The stereotypes toward Asian students are pervasive.

“If you gave identical problem sets to a TA, the one with the Asian name will be graded more harshly. They will take off more points. I don’t think they do it on purpose; it’s subconscious. But the impact of these stereotypes is very subtle but nevertheless there,” Wong said.

Some say the pressures stem from the dynamics of immigration.

“Every parent wants their kids to do better but the immigrants build greater pressure so their children don’t suffer the things they have suffered … they want to achieve equal footing with those who’ve been here for a while,” Chang said.

The pressures are heightened during the college process.

Barbara Lasher, a guidance counselor at the Bergen County Academies, a public magnet school located in Hackensack, NJ, told the story of a high-achieving Asian student at her school.

“She goes home from school at 5:15. Then she practices piano for three hours. Then she plays the flute for an hour and a half. She doesn’t start her homework until around ten or eleven. She never gets to sleep before two or three, and sometimes she doesn’t sleep at all. Though that’s the extreme case, there are many families with that work ethic and it’s mostly in the Asian community.”

Additionally, Asian students have the highest national SAT scores and grade point averages, according to Collegeboard statistics.

Other catalysts prompting the formation of the task force include several biased-related incidents in which women of Asian descent were the target for many verbal, physical, and sexual attacks.

The over-representation of Asian students in the statistics about suicides at Cornell was also a consideration in the creation of the Asian American Campus Climate Task Force. According the task force’s report, fifty-five percent of the suicides completed at Cornell since 1996 were by students of Asian descent.

“This disproportionate statistic confirmed an existing perception by many in the campus community that suicide was a particular problem among Asian and Asian American students. The suicide rate at Cornell was seen as especially disturbing when contrasted with the overall suicide rate in the United States.

According to the United States Surgeon General’s Report of 2001, the suicide rate for Asian Americans was 7 per 100,000. For whites the rate was 12.8 per 100,000.”

Wong said, “statistically, you can’t draw conclusions but it highlight concerns people long had about stresses that these students seem to present particularly at CAPS [Counseling and Psychological Services].”

Wong hopes the changes implemented through the task force include “education and awareness about students of Asian descent, [which would] potentially de-stigmatize mental health problems when they arise. It might increase faculty and student sensitivity to these issues and it might help lower barriers [for students to seek support].”

Archived article by Virginia Nam
Sun Staff Writer