November 1, 2002

C.U. Reacts To Suicide Among Asian-Americans

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University faculty, administrators and student groups have responded to the recent trend in suicides committed by students of Asian descent by initiating a variety of task forces to reassess the community’s needs and examining the services available to the Asian-American community.

“Statistics indicate a genuine and grave problem on campus,” said Jennifer Fang ’03, president of Asian Pacific Americans for Action (APAA).

Six of the 13 suicides at Cornell since 1996 were committed by male students of Asian descent, according to Dr. Wai-Kwong, psychiatrist at Gannett: University Health Care Services. Chronologically these were not the last six suicides. However, of the 13, six of the suicides were international students and four of the international students were of Asian descent, Wong said.

Last year’s University exit surveys revealed that of any ethnic group on campus, Asian-American graduates indicated the least overall satisfaction with the experiences and services at Cornell. This may be a reflection of faculty not recognizing when Asian-American students are asking for help, according to Prof. Shelley Wong, English.

Students of different cultural backgrounds may manifest the standard signs of distress in a way that faculty do not recognize as cries for help, Wong said.

In response, faculty and advisors in the College of Arts and Sciences involved in the University Counseling Advising Network have been working together with Gannett staff since last fall, learning how to identify students who may be in trouble.

“Though Asians are not more pressured than any other group on campus, culturally, Asian students may respond differently to pressure,” Wong said.

Talking about mental illness may be a cultural breach for many Asian-American students who feel that parents will not approve of counseling, according to Dr. Wendy Liu, psychiatrist at Gannett.

Students whose parents do not openly acknowledge the subject of mental illness may not even recognize their own experience as distress, Wong said.

“For a lot of Asian culture, there’s a real reluctance to admit weakness,” she said.

Frederic Nguyen ’04 said that “Asian-American students experience not only the struggle to meet the expectations of their respective cultures,” but feel the pressures of Cornell as a competitive institution.

“Asian-Americans are subject to a great deal of parental stress that may be partially cultural,” said Fang, who acknowledged that Asian-American parents tend to emphasize science-based career tracks, particularly computer science, engineering and medicine, “resulting in some students feeling compelled to pursue a career they have little interest in.”

Though many support networks on campus such as Empathy, Assistance and Referral Services (EARS) and Gannett’s Counseling and Psychological Services provide assistance for students in distress, Fang said that the types of services available may not be particularly helpful to Asian-Americans who feel that these services will not understand the nuances of their culturally saturated problems.

“Students who approach EARS or CAPS with the problem that they dislike their major may be simply encouraged to switch majors in defiance to their parents’ wishes,” Fang said.

“An Asian-American student however may not feel that this is as possible a course of action as another student might,” she said, suggesting the development of an Asian-American counseling service.

APAA aims to work with CAPS to develop a service or community center where “Asian-American students can go to discuss problems without feeling as if they have to explain the particular situation of being Asian-American,” she added.

Initiated last year as part of the task force developed to address the Asian-American campus climate, the Asian Alliance Mentoring Program currently provides formal mentoring for Asian-American students.

First year students who have identified themselves to be Asian-American are sent a letter of invite during the summer to be paired with a faculty mentor of the student’s choice, according to Irma Almirall-Padamsee, associate director of campus life and director of student affairs and diversity.

The purpose of the mentoring program is to help students develop a friendship with the faculty member in addition to their normal faculty advisor.

Almirall-Padamsee said that a student could indicate, for example, whether they prefer a male or female, Taiwanese or Indian faculty member.

Because students can indicate the characteristics they want in a mentor, the pairing allows students to feel a sense of unity with the University, developing trust across race and fostering community connections, she said.

Archived article by Janet Liao