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Thinking Through The Diversity of Asian American Students

Asian Pacific Islanders Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education
May 28, 2021

In the article The Asian American Movement, author, Daryl Maeda shares the term Asian American was coined by historian and activist Yuji Ichioka and the movement developed out of two vital movements: The Black Power and anti-Vietnam War movements. Its purpose was to include the many Asian ethnic groups that were in the US via migration. Its other intention was to create a feel of solidarity among not just Asians of all ethnicities, but also multiracial solidarity among Asian Americans, African, Latino and Native Americans in the U.S. and with people around the world impacted by U.S. militarism. When Ichioka created the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) he invited people who had Asian sounding names which included Chinese, Japanese, Filipino Americans from mainland and Hawaii (Maeda, 2016).

The question then is, who is included in the Asian American term? A better question is, who is missing? Growing up, people liked to ask me the common question “Where are you from?”. As I got older, my remarks got smarter (I am from California, from a small town called Yuba City). Then the person would switch their question to “What are you?” or guessing my identity. I was only given three options: Japanese, Korean, and Chinese, sometimes Filipino. As most folks know, Asia is a huge continent encompassing many different Asian identities. Why are some identities more talked about than others? One of the reasons can be lack of information. In the Harvard School of Public Health, NPR and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported that “37 percent of Asians...experienced serious financial problems during the pandemic, compared with 72 percent of Latinos, 60 percent of Blacks and 55 percent of Native Americans.” According to this data, the Asian Americans are doing okay, however there is a huge gap in the data. This survey was conducted only in English and Spanish, so folks who did not understand or speak English couldn’t answer the survey. Language barrier prevents from Asians from contributing polls, academics and policy making. According to the NCRC (National Community Reinvestment Coalition) income is dependent on education. In 2017 the educational achievement of Asian Americans was 53 percent compared to the national average of 33.4 percent. However, when different Asian groups were broken down, there is a correlation between Asian identities that have a higher rate of bachelor’s degree attainment also come from a higher socio-economic class.

Asian American does not represent everyone. Sarath Suong shared in an article for The Vox, that he faced a lot of colorism and classism and little to no understanding about Southeast Asians. As someone who did not fit into the racist idea of the “model minority myth,” Suong found himself in a place where he was not welcomed by other Asians and experiencing racism from White people. The “Asian American” phrase faces criticism for not distilling the large diversity of the Asian identity and for centering only on East Asians. Feelings of erasure and invisibility arise as this word and others such as Asian American and Pacific Islander attempt to cover a wide stretch of groups for a single common cause.

Here are some things to consider when working with low-income Asian American students.

Culture plays a big part in a student’s experience. When building rapport, explore familial structure, responsibility to family and expectation. Rather than asking “Where are you from?” or “What are you?”, I have asked students these questions to gain a better sense of who they are.

  1. “When you’re not at (insert name) university, where do you go?” Where do they reside.
  2. If the timing is right, I may disclose my own identity to create space for the student to disclose theirs. I may share a cultural tradition that my family practices and then I would ask the student if they had any traditions they grew up with. This tends to lead the conversation to their family, cultural background, ethnic identity etc.

Students who are second generation (born to parents who immigrated to the US, so born in the US) will likely come from households where English is not the dominant language, and the student is the main translator for the family. Consider having information and materials in other languages.

  1. Second generation students may also struggle with owning their identity as “Asian” but having grown up in the US. They often feel as if they live in two worlds that they don’t really belong in.

Remember that the term “Asian American” refers to a huge group of identities, and that many are not represented in demographic data, research etc.



Asante-Muhammed, D. & Sim, S. (2020). Racial Wealth Snapshot: Asian Americans And The Racial Wealth Divide. National Community Reinvestment Coalition. https://ncrc.org/racial-wealth-snapshot-asian-americans-and-the-racial-wealth-divide/

Harvard University, T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (2020). The impact of coronavirus on households in America. Retrieved from


Maekda, D. J. (2016). The Asian American Movement. Oxford Research Encyclopedias. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.013.21

Yee, A. (2021, March 2). It’s a Myth that Asian-Americans Are Doing Well in the Pandemic. Scientific Americanhttps://www.scientificamerican.com/article/its-a-myth-that-asian-americans-are-doing-well-in-the-pandemic/

Zhou, L. (2021, May 5). The inadequacy of the term “Asian American”. Vox. https://www.vox.com/identities/22380197/asian-american-pacific-islander-aapi-heritage-anti-asian-hate-attacks



Stephanie Zee is the Coordinator of Well-Being with Colorado State University’s Health Network. She has over 10 years of experience in higher education. Before graduating with a master’s degree in Student Affairs Administration from Western Washington University, Stephanie worked as a naturalist at an outdoor school located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in California. Stephanie’s passion areas include well-being, mindfulness, mental health, social justice, Asian American issues and experiential education. Stephanie has presented at various conferences on the topic of how the model minority myth contributes to anti-blackness. To speak more about this topic with Stephanie, e-mail her at [email protected].