Counseling Center

University of Maryland

College Park, Maryland


Breaking the Myth:

An Analysis of Asian Americans on a

University Campus Over a Decade


Eric L. Kohatsu and William E. Sedlacek


Research Report #13-90


Computer time was provided by the Computer Science Center,

University of Maryland, College Park. Some of the data

discussed were gathered in cooperation with the

Orientation office, University of Maryland, College Park.

Counseling Center

University of Maryland

College Park, Maryland


Breaking the Myth:

            An Analysis of Asian Americans on a

                        University Campus Over a Decade

Eric L. Kohatsu and William E. Sedlacek

                        Research Report #13-90


Asian Americans comprise one of the fastest growing racial/ethnic groups in the United States; yet, the model minority myth portrays this group as being successful. The perpetuation of the model minority myth obscures the problems and issues that many Asian American groups have been struggling with in the U.S. What remains hidden behind this myth are rising anti-Asian violence, racism, and poverty that plague many Asian Americans. This report briefly summarizes the results of a preliminary study that examined Asian Americans at UMCP over a 10 year period. Generally, Asian Americans were a relatively stable group; however, Asian Americans in 1988 appeared to be more socially oriented, better prepared for college life, and less competitive for grades than students in 1978. Asian Americans should not be considered a homogenous group, as each respective ethnic group deals with different issues. Other implications for educators and student affairs professionals are discussed.

Breaking the Myth: An Analysis of Asian Americans on a

University Campus Over a Decade


one of the negative consequences of the publicized successes of college students who are Asian American has been the creation and perpetuation of the model minority myth (Endo, 1980; D.W. Sue, 1981; D.W. Sue & D. Sue, 1990; Takaki, 1989). Because Asian Americans are seen as being hard working, and educationally and financially successful, few programs and services that could benefit this population have been developed. What the myth obscures is the fact that many Asian Americans are not doing well. For a number of Asian sub-groups there are serious problems with poverty, discrimination, racism, and even educational attainment/opportunity (Brower, 1980; Gardner, Robey, & Smith, 1985; Kitano & Daniels, 1988; Suzuki, 1977; Zinsmeister, 1987). Further, Asian Americans are not adequately represented in higher education; for example, the national rates of faculty (especially tenured) and administrators who are Asian are low (Wilson & Carter, 1988).


Physical and emotional abuse directed toward Asian Americans has gone up sharply in the United States (Takaki, 1989). There was a 62% increase in anti-Asian incidents between 1984 and 1985 as recorded with the Justice Department (Zinsmeister, 1987). The brutal murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit underscores the extent


of the anti-Asian sentiment (Kitano & Daniels, 1988). Vincent Chin was murdered by two White auto workers who mistakenly thought that Chin was Japanese. Thus, it appears that the model minority myth glosses over the problems that many Asian Americans face. Given the problems and environmental stressors that Asian Americans encounter in the United States, what can be said accurately about this racial/ethnic group?


Asian Americans comprise one of the fastest growing racial/ethnic groups in the United States (Hodgkinson, 1985; Kitano, 1989). There have been a number of waves of immigration by the different subgroups--the Japanese and Chinese were the first groups to arrive, and currently, South East Asians (e.g., Vietnamese), Koreans, Filipinos, Chinese, and other ethnic groups are making their way to the U.S. Although the umbrella term "Asian American" is used as the generic descriptor for this population, the many Asian sub-groups have unique cultures and somewhat different experiences and issues. Therefore, it is important to recognize that there may be variation among individuals within any particular Asian group, and that there are significantdifferences among the Asian ethnic groups.


Generally, Asians have tended to stress the importance of education, and have worked hard to succeed in the school systems. It has been documented that Asian Americans outperform Whites on the Math section of the SAT (Givens, Mittelbach, Goldberg,


Christopher, Genachowski, Reed, Cook, & Butler, 1984; Hodgkinson, 1985; S. Sue & Okazaki, 1990). Admission rates of Asian Americans and the relative proportion of Asian Americans in higher education have also been high. However, in recent years a number of prestigious academic institutions have implemented admissions quotas for Asians and Asian Americans (e.g., Hsia, 1988a, 1988b; Nakanishi, 1988; Salholz, Doherty, & Tran, 1987). One of the typical explanations provided for the "success" of Asian Americans has been that Asian cultural values and socialization patterns emphasize education. An alternative view may be that the emphasis on education is a mechanism by which Asian Americans can more effectively deal with the discrimination and racism inherent in the White system (e.g., S. Sue & Okazaki, 1990) .


Past research has suggested that Asian Americans, in comparison to Whites, tend to exhibit lower levels of verbal and emotional expressiveness, are more shy or not as assertive, prefer structured environments, bestow more power to authority, experience feelings of discomfort, anxiety, and loneliness (e.g., Kohatsu, 1990; Leong, 1986; Minatoya & Sedlacek, 1981; S. Sue & Morishima, 1982). Asian Americans have also been found to exhibit restraint of feelings, emphasize the social nexus(interpersonal relationships within a small social group), and maintain culturally prescribed social roles (Kohatsu, 1990; Leong, 1986).

This widely accepted "profile" of Asian Americans was derived from psychological studies done in the 1970s and 1980s with college students primarily from the West coast. It was not until the late 1980s that researchers began to investigate other Asian American populations (e.g., Vietnamese) and to challenge previous findings (e.g., assertiveness). For example, social assertiveness among Asian Americans was found to be more complex than originally suggested; as S. Sue, Ino, and D. Sue (1983) demonstrated, Asian Americans were just as assertive as Whites depending upon the specific social situation. Hence, in studying other Asian ethnic groups and by unraveling the true complexities of behaviors and attitudes among these ethnic groups, researchers may become more aware that the existing body of literature may not accurately reflect Asian Americans in the 1990s.


Studies that have specifically examined the attitudes, behaviors, and characteristics of Asian American college students have suggested a number of recurring trends (e.g., Minatoya & Sedlacek, 1979; 1980). For instance, a high percentage of students spent their lives in large cities/suburbs where the racial composition of the neighborhood was less than 25% of their own respective race (Minatoya & Sedlacek, 1979). In addition, many Asian American college students choose majors in science


fields, rather than in the social sciences or humanities (Minatoya & Sedlacek, 1980). Obtaining a college degree has been essential to the professional aspirations of many Asian Americans, and in order to achieve such goals, these students were willing to put in more hours studying than other students.


Indeed, factors such as the recent immigration by a number of different Asian groups, the myth of the model minority, and the rising tide of violence against Asians may have all had some effect on Asian American college students. Given these changing environmental conditions, the issue considered in this review is do Asian American students differ from students in a previous decade?


One theme that emerged in reviewing the literature on Asian Americans is that there have been few studies done on Asian American college students' attitudes and behaviors over time. An exception is an unpublished pilot study done by the writers of this article, comparing Asian American freshmen entering a large eastern state university in 1978 and 1988. In this study, similar goals, expectations, and attitudes were found between the two groups. However, there were differences between groups on a number of dimensions. Asian American students felt more independent and better prepared academically, less lonely and competitive in 1988 compared to 1978. In addition, Asian American females were more likely to live at home and less likely


to be involved on campus or be competitive than Asian American males.

In light of the preceding brief descriptive review of an unpublished exploratory study, what could be said about the changes that the Asian American college student population may have undergone over the last 10-years?

At first glance, it appears that Asian Americans have not gone through major changes over a ten-year period. overall, students in 1988 appeared to have been more socially oriented, as they expected the social support system at school to act as a substitute for their immediate families. Asian Americans in 1988 also reported feeling more prepared for collegiate life which supports the more social orientation of these students. Nationally, Asian families have tended to be strongly supportive of education, which may be a factor in the significant increase in the confidence level in students' feeling of preparedness in 1988.

Asian American males appeared to be more socially outgoing than females. Males tended to participate more actively in such school related activities as intramural sports and expressed a preference for the variety that large schools offer. This social orientation suggests that the acculturation level of Asian American males may be increasing proportionally to the rate of females. That is, Asian American males generally have been shown


to acculturate into White culture at a lower rate than females (e.g., Leong, 1986); the results of the study just summarized suggest that there may be an increasingly higher level of acculturation among Asian American males in 1988 than was the case l0-years earlier.

Moreover, it is suggested that females were much less competitive than males across both years. Such a finding may be contradictory to what has been traditionally depicted in the research literature; that is, Asian American females usually were more involved in occupations that required verbal skills (as opposed to purely technical skills) and a higher degree of social interaction. It was assumed that both males and females, particularly the females, would be more competitive in 1988 than in 1978 given the significant changes that have occurred in the United States. Since females have historically entered occupations requiring high levels of verbal and social skills, it seemed reasonable to expect that they in turn would be more competitive than males. A possible explanation for this finding is that females may be more sensitive to preserving the delicate balance of racial identities in a bicultural/multicultural environment. Asian American women may feel obligated to fulfill some of the prescribed traditional cultural roles and behaviors, whereas males may possibly consider such a responsibility as lessimportant. An interesting finding that supports this idea was


that Asian American females preferred to live at home and commute to school, rather than live on campus. Even though Asian women were interested in pursuing careers, the commitment to the family may indicate that they are balancing dual roles. That is, females are seeking careers and, at the same time, attempting to fulfill responsibilities to their families.

The few significant changes in the responses of the Asian American groups, suggest that the two groups that were compared are somewhat similar on a number of dimensions. such a conclusion may not be truly reflective of Asian American students, since there are differences in individual experiences and that there are different compositions of ethnic groups within any university or college. It is important to caution student affairs professionals, counselors, and faculty that the apparent lack of significant changes in this sample of Asian American students should not be generalized to Asian Americans en masse. Rather than assuming that no changes equals functioning without problems, professionals should increase, not decrease, attention paid to this racial group. Asian Americans are composed of a more diverse set of ethnic groups than was the case in 1978. Further, socioeconomic problems are escalating among certain Asian groups, racism is on the increase, and overt violence against many Asian Americans have been occurring with greater frequency. The psychological, emotional, and physical


manifestations of these difficulties may just be emerging--hence, it would be useful to attend to this racial/ethnic group.


Implications for student affairs professionals

Although this review highlighted that there have been very few changes among Asian Americans at the university studied, there are still some subtle changes that student affairs professionals must address. Given the large influx of different immigrant groups, the differential rate of acculturation occurring between males and females, and the effects of the model minority myth have affected this racial/ethnic group.

First, Asian Americans should not be treated as a homogenous group. There are differences between the Asian ethnic groups and hence, each respective group may be dealing with different issues. For example, Wang, Sedlacek, and Westbrook (1991) found that Vietnamese Americans were more likely than other Asians to prefer to associate with their own ethnic group rather than with Whites or other Asians. Thus, it would be helpful to understand the differential levels of acculturation and ethnic/racial identity that the Asian American student may be incorporating into their sense of self; therefore, the way in which Asian American students may deal with certain situations would be affected by such variables.

Second, student affairs professionals should not assume that the relatively few changes that have taken place among Asian Americans at the institution studied warrants that all Asian Americans over ten-years have essentially the remained the same. The sociopolitical changes in the U.S. may at this pointin time be manifesting their impact, albeit in different ways, among this diverse racial/ethnic group. Again, particular issues and problems may vary significantly across the different Asian ethnic groups. In addition, there will also be variation in terms of geographical regions; Asian Americans on the West coast will likely have to contend with different issues than Asian Americans on the East coast.

Third, the press of cultural diversity is certainly apparent among the Asian American ethnic groups, and student affairs professionals should be aware and prepared for this ever unfolding of cultural diversity on college campuses and among Asian Americans. An integral component of dealing with this cultural diversity is that Asian Americans may need to be more aware of these cultural differences in order to effectively cope with the White system. Part of the problem appears to stem from the lack of understanding among Asian American college students of how the White system has perpetrated racism and oppression of the various Asian groups in this country. Further, Sedlacek (1987, 1989) has concluded that how well a student from a


racial/ethnic minority group handles the system, particularly in understanding how to deal with racism, correlates with grades and retention in school. Recommendations for future research

Future studies might include developing comprehensive instruments that would be more sensitive to intragroup differences along a number of different dimensions. one area that has been neglected in the empirical literature is the impact that racial/ethnic identity may have on the emotional/psychological functioning of Asian Americans. Second, sampling a wider range of Asian American students would add to the fund of knowledge of this particular racial group. A possibility could be to survey comparable representative samples of Asian American students on the East, West coast, as well as the Midwest. Further, another recommendation would be to track a particular sample over time--a longitudinal study of a specific sample of Asian Americans might provide insights into how a predominately White university environment may affect the Asian student through time. Lastly, recent Asian immigrant groups, such as the Vietnamese and Koreans, also need to be more systematically studied. There is a definite lack of empirical work in the social sciences and education on these recent immigrant groups. Not only is there a gap in the literature, but that the existing empirical work largely pertains to the more


established Asian groups, such as the Chinese and the Japanese. Increasing the scholarly work on Asian Americans can lead to designing more efficacious interventions, as well as improving existing programs and services. By addressing the social and psychological functioning of Asian Americans, particularly the newer Asian immigrant groups, the myth of the model minority can finally be dispelled.





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