I was born and raised in Elk Grove, California, a suburb located on the southern tip of Sacramento County. My parents immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in the mid-to-late 1980’s, and ultimately settled in Sacramento County with the rest of our relatives. Being raised by the immigrant generation, I have always had a strong connection and appreciation for my culture. Given the heavy ethnic diversity in Elk Grove – people of color make up over half of Elk Grove’s population – cultural shock was hardly ever something I experienced between interacting with my family and my classmates at school. I have also been fortunate enough to have not experienced any amount of overt racial prejudice, nor did interactions with my peers at school have a profound negative impact on me – at least at the time.
Going through school, both my older sister and I excelled in our academics. Throughout elementary and junior high school, she and I often held one of the top positions in our classes. Noticing her unparalleled academic prowess, my sister was given the opportunity to be promoted out of sixth grade early, under the recommendation of her teachers at the time. She ultimately graduated at the top of her class upon completing middle school. Though I did not have quite the same academic motivation my sister did, I still often held the top spots in my classes, and followed in my sister’s footsteps throughout high school and took any honors and AP class I feasibly could.
In school, I vaguely remember the hardly-encouraging-almost-always-accusatory whispers of my classmates, explaining away my good grades with the fact that I am Asian American (“You don’t need to study, you’re Asian!”). At the time, though, the model minority stereotype was not something that was explained to me, nor did this stereotype phase me. If anything, I found it encouraging, finding comfort in knowing that I was meeting the socially constructed expectations of being Asian – because I was succeeding in school, I was then considered to be a “true Asian.” I almost thrived on the fact that I was excelling in school – I was giving my parents something to brag about, and it felt good knowing that I was the student my classmates should aspire to be. I did not recognize this stereotype as a problem because I bought into it.
When the time came to begin considering college and what major I should pursue, I felt like I only had two options: doctor or engineer – two career paths that would perpetuate the image that, as an Asian American, I had somehow “made it” in society (Sue, Bucceri, Lin, Nadal, & Torino, 2007). I ultimately chose to pursue a degree in civil engineering at Cal Poly Pomona because even the model minority stereotype was not enough to persuade me to go through an outrageous amount of schooling to become a doctor. As I entered college, I realized that the mindset of fulfilling a stereotype would prove to be incredibly damaging. The model minority stereotype would no longer be the standard I idolized, and would instead turn into a toxic companion that made me feel an overwhelming weight of inadequacy.
The Undergraduate Years (2011-2017)
Having graduated from high school in the top ten percent of my class with a GPA of above a 4.0, I was admitted into the honors program at Cal Poly Pomona. I got into my first choice university with the (impacted) major I wanted, I was thriving academically, and I found a small community filled with like-minded, ambitious, goal-oriented individuals. In my seventeen year old eyes, college was going to be a blast. I was not ready for the series of humbling events that would force me to confront the standard I had been trying to live up to my entire academic life.
I finished off my first quarter of my undergraduate career with a 3.25 grade point average. To everyone else, this could be seen as an impressive and promising start to a rigorous engineering curriculum. Given my academic past, a 3.25 to me was far from acceptable, and refused to accept it as anything more than that. Aside from my own expectations, a 3.25 was also just under the required minimum GPA needed to remain in the honors program, and I was thus put on academic probation from the program. I was teetering on the edge of failure, which sent me onto a trajectory of feeling the need to prove my worth to everyone, including to an entire race of people.
“Math Seems Like a Better Fit For You Anyway”
Towards the end of my sophomore year, my motivation plummeted even further as I began taking – and failing – more rigorous engineering courses. I took Vector Statics during winter quarter – the class that was supposed to separate those who were “meant to be” engineers from those who weren’t. Vector Statics was also the first class I ever failed, a major blow to my ego that sent me down an existential crisis spiral. I promised myself I would do better in order to stay on track and check off the boxes of my ten year plan. By spring quarter, I had been obtaining nothing higher than C’s, and failed the Vector Statics course a second time. By this point, any motivation I had to succeed was completely gone – I was getting less than mediocre grades, and I did not feel motivated to try and do better. I then had to have a difficult conversation with myself, wondering if pursuing an engineering degree was worth my well-being. Though I arrived at the decision to change my major – something that was so easily done by many of my non-Asian peers – I still felt like I had failed, a feeling that was exponentially intensified by just being an Asian American who had, until that point, succeeded in school.
I filled out the papers and got the necessary signatures to begin the process to officially change my major to Mathematics – a major that I felt was feasible enough for me to complete, while also keeping my need to honor my Asian-ness at bay. Though I did not realize it at the time, a significant motivation of choosing to remain in the STEM field was the fact that I would be “staying in my lane” in academia as an Asian American (Chang & Kiang, 2002). One of the final signatures I needed to get was from my academic advisor from the College of Engineering. The situation was awkward enough, having to tell a professional (who was also Asian American) in the engineering field that I was essentially walking away from her field, but one of her colleagues was also in her office, so I now had to confront two engineering professionals and let them know that because I failed, I was abandoning the engineering world. Upon leaving her office with her signature, she left me with the comment, “Math seems like a better fit for you anyway.” Though I want to believe that her comment was well-intended, it was still a hard blow to my already-deteriorated self-esteem.
“It’s Unfortunate You’re Not Part of The Honors College Anymore”
Because I was already two years into my college career, I felt like I was running low on time to finish school. This propelled me to take courses over the summer in order to catch up. Because I was only focused on finishing school “on time” instead of doing well, I ended up failing one of the two classes I took that summer, thus putting me even more behind in my curriculum. By the end of that summer, my GPA plummeted even more, making it hard to justify keeping me in the honors program. That summer, after two years of being on academic probation from the honors program, I was finally dismissed. I emailed back and forth with the Honors College advisor and director, doing whatever I could in order to remain in the program, as it was one of the few things left that nestled me in my comfortable spot as a model minority student. This string of emails came to a head by my advisor saying, “it’s unfortunate you’re not part of the Honors College anymore.” Though graduating with honors would not have done more than simply being an extra notation on my diploma, it felt like another important brick was removed from the game of Jenga that my self-esteem turned into.
Over the next couple of years, I did whatever I could in order to get back on track in my academic progress and graduate by the end of my fifth year. This included taking a full course load of upper-division mathematics classes every quarter and deciding to enroll in another quarter of summer school, where I took the two most difficult core classes in my curriculum. However, because my focus was not where it should have been, I failed more classes than I passed, and found myself under academic probation from my department. By my fifth year, I had taken all of the classes in my major curriculum, but because my GPA was so low, I had to remain in school and retake as many classes as I could in order to raise my GPA and be able to graduate.
At the start of my fifth year, I was more motivated than ever to try and finish school. I figured that because I had taken all of the math major classes already, then I was almost guaranteed to get enough A’s and B’s to graduate by the end of the year. The time constraint I gave myself was the accountability I needed in order to make sure I would finish school in a timely manner. I did well that Fall quarter – I got mostly B’s – but not well enough to get to a safe enough place to ensure that I would graduate that year. I then gave myself the unrealistic goal of getting straight-A’s the following quarter. Towards the end of winter quarter, earning nothing higher than B’s in my classes, the sinking feeling of realizing I would have to stay in school another year settled in. After class one day, I reflected on the past five years and the series of failures I had endured. I failed out of engineering. I failed out of the honors program. I failed at graduating in under five years. I was on the verge of failing out of my major and, if I kept going in that trajectory, failing out of school. This series of failures was a direct result of setting unrealistic standards for myself, wanting desperately to live up to the level of excellence that was thrust upon me from a young age.
I called my parents that day after class at the height of my downward spiral, feeling so defeated. I prepared myself for the responses I would inevitably get from my immigrant Asian parents, tinged with disappointment, “you should’ve,” and “you didn’t.” To my surprise, I got neither of those reactions, or any reaction that was underscored with disappointment and guilt. Instead, they reminded me of a simple truth that I desperately needed to hear: “You’ve been too focused on finishing school within a certain amount of time. Don’t worry about how long it takes you to finish school. Just finish.” They ended the conversation with “You haven’t failed. You’re not a failure.” Though it did not sink in immediately at the time, hearing this encouragement from my parents began the process of separating myself from the model minority stereotype, and unlearning the things I thought I knew about myself because of that stereotype. This process was long but liberating, and ultimately allowed me to focus on things other than excelling in school and setting myself up well for a lucrative future. It allowed me to realize that I am not to be held responsible for serving a societal myth about my race, and that I serve a much greater purpose.
Before writing this piece, I had a difficult time pin-pointing an aspect in my undergraduate experience that would check off the boxes of either privilege or oppression. Up until recently, I viewed my college experience as a relatively normal one – which it was – with very few, if any, events that shoved either oppression or privilege down my throat. Upon reflection, I realized that the model minority myth dictated a larger part of my entire academic experience than I thought. My experience as a student who is Asian American is a true testament to the treachery of the model minority myth – this unfounded stereotype has the potential to negatively impact someone’s quality of living, self-worth, and overall well-being (Sue, Bucceri, Lin, Nadal, & Torino, 2007).
Being in a graduate program where I get to learn how to interact with different types of students, and being able to pull from my own experiences and assigned readings, brings my experiences back around full-circle. One major thing I have learned is that I am not alone in my experiences, and now knowing this, I can let future students know that they are not alone either. The opportunity to be in a position where I get to empower students by diminishing stereotypes like the model minority myth will be the bow I get to tie around my own experiences as a hostage of a stereotype. With the ever-evolving demographics of the higher education space, it is time to put these stereotypes to rest, and help students recognize their true potential, unshackled by years of misinformation and assumptions.