When one thinks of Asian Americans, for most people what comes to mind are well-educated, high-income earners; overachievers; and hard workers whose children are destined for spots at elite Ivy League schools.
But this model minority perception is just that: a perception. It also overlooks one big issue: Asian Americans are far from homogenous.
“The Asian American Pacific Islander community is comprised of over 48 different ethnicities,” notes Joy Yoo, associate director of marketing and communications for the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, a Washington, D.C.- based organization that provides hundreds of scholarships each year to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs). “There are hundreds of different languages. It’s very diverse. There’s also immense diversity in need and immense diversity in educational need.”
According to the American Community Survey, 11 percent of Asian Americans live below the poverty line. Many Asian American groups have college-degree completion rates far below the national average. Many also have income levels below the median income. Among Southeast Asians, 34 percent of Vietnamese, 43 percent of Cambodians, 47 percent of Laotians and 48 percent of Hmong adults attended college but did not graduate, the survey shows.The survey also revealed that 50 percent of Native Hawaiians, 54 percent of Tongans and 58 percent of Samoans entered college but left without graduating.
The AAPI community, one of the nation’s fastest-growing minority groups, gets a lot of plaudits for remarkable achievements in the academy and elsewhere — and that’s not always a good thing.
“The high level of educational attainment among some AAPI groups has overshadowed the needs in some groups,” Yoo says, adding that, until relatively recently, there was very little data on individual Asian American groups and Pacific Islanders.
“Asian Americans weren’t allowed to self-identify on the census until 1990. My parents had to identify as ‘other,’” she says, adding that this lack of disaggregated data over the years made it hard to understand the needs of some of these communities.
Only “15 percent of Cambodians, Hmong or Laotians have bachelor’s degrees,” Yoo continues. “Among adults 25 or over in the Native American Pacific Islander community, only 18 percent have bachelor’s degrees. In the Pacific Islander community, Tongans and Fijians are among the least likely to hold bachelor’s degrees. This lack of disaggregated data is masking the needs of other groups.”
Adds Dr. Julie Park, an assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland, College Park: “The AAPI group is misunderstood. Almost half of our students attend community college. So it is incredibly diverse. It is important for educators to understand where students are coming from and how best … to serve them.”
Some colleges and universities are heightening their awareness about the needs and complexities of the various groups that form the AAPI community. In 2008, the federal government created a program that allows colleges and universities to apply to be designated Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving Institutions (AANAPISIs).
The threshold is 10 percent of student enrollment. Approximately 150 schools now have such designations, a number that is expected to rise.
They include schools such as the University of Maryland, the University of Illinois at Chicago and San José State University.
But even schools that are not designated AANAPISI-serving institutions are working hard to make their campuses more inclusive in every sphere — from the classroom to residential life.
The University of Wisconsin–Madison, which enrolls hundreds of students of Southeast Asian descent, has a growing Asian American Studies Program and has one of a few Hmong studies programs in the country.
Dr. Joshua Moon Johnson, assistant dean of students and director of the Multicultural Student Center at the University of Wisconsin, says his office offers a lot of student life programming aimed at all students of color, such as helping them adjust to a new community and developing skills to confront racism in the classroom, in the residence halls and in the city.
He says the Hmong American Student Association is one of the largest groups on campus and that his office works closely with the group by providing training for the student leaders, office space for meetings, and funds to host events and marketing for their initiatives.
Lack of inclusiveness
Johnson, who came to Madison less than a year ago from the University of California system, says that, unlike many other institutions, the University of Wisconsin makes distinctions among Asian students, particularly those of Southeast Asian descent.
He says that one of the challenges faced by many Asian American students at predominantly White institutions (PWIs) is a feeling of a lack of inclusiveness. This can be particularly true for students of Southeast Asian extraction.
“Being at a PWI focused on White culture and White cultural norms, students would come here and not feel like they are a part of the community,” Johnson says. “If I don’t feel [that] I’m a part of the community [then] I’m less likely to be successful.
“There are micro-aggressive and micro-invalidating aspects to this. There is the idea of tokenism and a feeling that they are being stereotyped. Most of the faculty are White and most can’t tell the difference among Asians and assume they don’t need any help. Many of the chief diversity officers across the country neglect the fact that Asian American students encounter racial issues. Much of the focus is on Black and Latino.”
Bao Nhia Moua, a native of St. Paul, Minnesota, and a senior majoring in social welfare who graduates in May, says her first year at the University of Wisconsin was particularly difficult for her.
“When I came [I] felt some tension between myself and the White students,” she says. “I felt people would give me stares or give me looks. So I ended up hanging out on another floor called the multicultural community.”
At the end of her freshman year, Moua says, she strongly considered transferring because she didn’t feel welcome. One of her older sisters encouraged her to stay. In her sophomore year, Moua says, she landed a job at the multicultural affairs office that enabled her to build relationships with other students of color and have open discussions about race and identity.
She applauds the university for creating more forums for students to have conversations about race and diversity, but says it needs to do more to ensure that more students of color are included in these forums and lead them.
But even as more universities start paying closer attention to issues confronting Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander students, Dr. Robert Teranishi, who holds the Morgan and Helen Chu Endowed Chair in Asian American Studies at UCLA, says institutions of higher learning will do well to focus on other emerging Asian American groups.
“We still have challenges of high rates of Asians coming in as refugees, but they are coming from Burma, Nepal and Bhutan,” he says. “We always have to be vigilant about knowing who these folks are and how those of us in education can adapt and more quickly respond to the needs of these folks.
“When it comes to immigration policy, often the focus is on Latinos, but immigration policy disproportionately affects Asians because of the high foreign-born population and because they are coming to the U.S. under so many different policies, including worker policies, family reunification and refugees. The question is, how do we create a system that can accommodate a diverse system of immigrant groups?”
Only when that question is sufficiently answered, Teranishi says, will the needs of these groups be more effectively addressed.
“It’s very complicated to tease out issues in the community,” he says. “In community colleges we are seeing high rates of financial vulnerability, students working multiple jobs, sometimes more than 40 hours a week and juggling other responsibilities in the home. It’s hurting their ability to make economic progress and get the degrees.”