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‘Straight A’s’

Authors discuss their new book on the experience of Asian American students at Harvard University.

August 3, 2018
 

A current lawsuit charges that Harvard University discriminates against Asian American applicants, but what of those who are admitted? What is their experience?

A new book, Straight A’s: Asian American College Students in Their Own Words (Duke University Press), considers these questions, based in large part on interviews with those students. The students talk about their frustrations with stereotypes they face and with the high expectations of fellow students (of all races and ethnicities) that Asian students achieve success easily. And the students talk about the strong pressure many experience from their parents and other family members to be perfect academically.

The authors of the book, who worked with a collective of Asian American students at Harvard, are Christine R. Yano, a professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i, and Neal K. Adolph Akatsuka, coordinator of publications and programs at Harvard's Mahindra Humanities Center.

Yano answered questions about the book via email.

Q: Your book focuses on the views of Asian students at Harvard, which is of course not a typical American college. How much do you think the perspective you heard applies broadly in American higher education?

A: There is plenty that is applicable here. The issues surrounding families, culture, sexuality and mental health can be seen throughout the spectrum of Asian American experience. However, I feel that at an elite institution such as Harvard, some of these issues are amplified. After all, these students represent some of the most highly touted success stories of families (including overseas), high schools and communities, so the expectations and pressures are more intense.

Q: An issue that comes up in many of the student comments in the book is that not all Asian students are alike. Why is this issue so important to these students?

A: Students in my class (Anthropology 1606, Being Asian American: Representations and Realities) laughed -- both at their commonalities, as well as their differences. The issue of the diversity of experiences within the Asian American population at Harvard became important to them, because they were so often stereotyped as all the same. The model-minority stereotype in particular became a point of contention. Some of them cringed to recognize themselves in the stereotype; others of them defiantly distanced themselves from the stereotype. No one likes to think of themselves as predictable or part of a herd. So the students felt it important that this book represent some of the diversity of their experiences.

Q: The title of your book reflects the intense pressure many students feel to be perfect academically. How problematic is this pressure?

A: Hearing these students’ stories, I was amazed at the pressure. And keep in mind that it isn't only academics that had to be perfect. It is a lifestyle of what I call “straightness.” Thus the straight A’s of their grade point average run in parallel with the perceived necessary straightness of their lives. And that pressure continues. There are stories of families erupting in discord over what they considered to be an inappropriate major -- that is, psychology rather than premed! And this is all within the perfectly legitimate Harvard umbrella. The pressure to be perfect -- or at least to adopt the veneer of perfection -- was and is real. This is one of the reasons why the chapter on mental health was so near and dear to members of the Asian American collective (students who put the book together). This was the narrative terrain that meant so very much to them. And you can expect that because of the pressure, a few of the most searing stories did not make it to press. Nevertheless, what we did capture in the book was a sense of the pressure -- as well as pleasure -- that frames these students’ lives.

Q: A lawsuit against Harvard alleging discrimination against Asian American applicants is currently capturing much attention. Of course the students in the book got in, but do they feel they are held to higher standards than others?

A: I did not get the sense that the students felt that Harvard as an institution held them to a higher admissions standard than other students. But I bet that many of them feel the pressures from their families hold them to very high standards. And having grown up with those expectations, many of the students have internalized those high standards as their own.

Q: How would you characterize relations between Asian American students and other nonwhite students at Harvard?

A: From my observations, relations between Asian American students and other students of color at Harvard were cordial, though not necessarily close. There was not a broad overall coalition of students of color. Granted, some of the Asian American students buried themselves within Asian-affiliated organizations and activities. But others went in the completely opposite direction, not wanting to associate only with other Asian Americans.

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