UC Davis Magazine Online
Volume 20
Number 4
Summer 2003
Current IssuePast IssuesMagazine HomeSearch Class NotesSend a Letter
Features: We Turn 20 | The Value of Flattened Flora | Between Two Worlds

Between Two Worlds

Pulled by the demands of their cultures and college life, Asian American students face some particular challenges. UC Davis is taking steps to help these students succeed.

By Susanne Rockwell

Christina LynesEven before she was born, it was decided that Theresa Montemayor was going to be a doctor. In fact, her Filipina mother decided for all five of her children that they would be physicians. When Montemayor enrolled at UC Davis in the late ’70s, she was on the pre-med track—and soon struggling in her science classes.

“I hated college,” Montemayor remembers. “I’ll never forget getting advice about changing majors from a chemistry professor who assumed it would be easy for me not to be pre-med. He just didn’t understand that for 18 years I was told I was going to be a doctor. My parents told me this, and all my relatives knew that was what I would be. When I told my parents I was doing poorly, their only answer was ‘Just study harder.’”

Without her parents’ knowledge, Montemayor started taking classes in an area in which she excelled: sociology. When she finally told her parents that she wasn’t going to graduate with a biology degree and go on to medical school, her mother threatened to send her to the Philippines for medical school.

As a face-saving move, Montemayor created her own health major to graduate in 1979 with a science-oriented UC Davis degree, and she went on to a successful career in higher education serving as associate director of the UC Davis Student Programs and Activities Center. To this day, she remembers how miserable she felt about that chemistry course and her failure to fulfill her mother’s dream. But what she remembers most vividly is how she found the strength to chart her own path without alienating her family.

Many UC Davis students—especially the children of immigrants and, even more specifically, the children of Asian immigrants—can tell you their own version of Montemayor’s story. Having been at the top of their high school class, they come to Davis to seek the college grail: education aimed at careers in medicine, engineering, business or, as a “last fallback,” law. Within the first year, many change direction, triggering a crisis that’s not just about career but about family relations and remaining true to both self and cultural values.

To be sure, to be Asian American means as many different things as there are individuals. More than 40 ethnicities qualify as “Asian American,” from Pacific Islander to Pakistani. Students identify somewhat with the overarching category of “Asian American” but identify more strongly with their particular ethnic group, such as Chinese-Vietnamese, Thai or Korean. “There’s no natural affinity, necessarily, across this group,” says Wendy Ho, chair of the Asian American Studies Program. The wide range of economic backgrounds also makes generalizations difficult, as does the varying number of generations that their families have lived here. Family politics and English-speaking abilities, geography and even the diversity of cultures—or lack thereof—in their home communities and high schools all affect students coming to UC Davis.

Nevertheless, faculty and staff working with students do find many common issues and goals within the broader Asian American community.

Alicia CheungWhen Asian American students come to Davis they bring cultural values, communication styles, immigration histories and, above all, extremely strong family ties. A happy college experience for Asian American students often means pleasing their mother and father—but this does not always make for honest communication. Parents are both the all-important emotional support for students entering adulthood and, for many, a major source of stress as the students strive to uphold family expectations of success. Ironically, the emotional closeness in Asian families can be a barrier to students’ adjustment to college life. Students who go home every weekend find it difficult to participate in extracurricular activities like sports, clubs, service groups or other student associations—and miss out on what many Davis educators say are the biggest learning opportunities in college.

Asian American students also struggle with career goals. They want to please their parents while sometimes feeling they have no choice in what they really want to do in life. Some students are pressured by poor parents who want their children to realize the American material dreams that have escaped them. Students may want to change career goals, but they may have been so narrowly focused that they’re unaware of the alternatives.

The academic setting adds other challenges. Some Asian Americans come with poor study habits but refuse to seek help because of their self-reliant culture and fear of looking like a failure. Others must traverse the dramatically different cultures of home and university. Students with a traditional Asian upbringing are often unprepared for a university culture that emphasizes individualism, forthrightness and speaking up in a group. The Asian reserve can affect classroom success and has larger implications for creating future leaders, a major goal of the UC system.

Fortunately, unlike 25 years ago when Montemayor struggled, UC Davis now has people and programs targeted to help this growing student population, one that has now reached 37 percent of UC Davis undergraduates. The campus recognizes that Asian American students experience specific challenges in college related to their cultural heritage and identity. Throughout UC Davis academic and student support units, resources have been added to help students figure out what they want to do when they “grow up” and how to successfully achieve those goals.

The past 18 months saw the addition of an Asian American retention coordinator, who is also an English-as-a-second-language writing specialist, and a student affairs officer for Asian American students. Asian American studies became a full-fledged major in 2000 and is considered by its division dean to be one of the strongest interdisciplinary programs on campus. This follows nearly a decade of enrollment growth in the program; students from all majors have been drawn to classes that help them understand their heritage and their communities through the study of psychology, history, literature, sociology and theatre. And the Counseling Center, with five of its 15 psychologists now Asian American, offers intensive career counseling workshops each quarter as well as programs that improve student communication skills.

Hieu Dovan, the clinical director and an immigrant from Vietnam, hears in his counseling sessions about the communication difficulties between students and parents. He concludes that many Asian American parents are not giving their children the emotional support they need during the hard times of college because they want to hear only that their children are doing well. Even when their children are happy, parents may not know it.

“Asian daughters, for instance, don’t share certain intimate news with their parents,” Dovan says. “They could be very happy with a boyfriend, but their parents will never know it, because the parents believe their daughter is not supposed to have a boyfriend; she is supposed to just study.”
According to campus statistics, the people least likely to visit the Counseling Center to share their problems are Asian men—and Asian women aren’t far behind. Dovan attributes the phenomenon to issues of self-reliance and shame in Asian cultures.

The Counseling Center has reached out to Asian American students through the career counseling program, which Dovan says students view as less threatening. Each quarter, 40–50 students—a healthy proportion of them Asian American—sign up for the workshops to learn how to look at career choices through several lenses: cultural values, financial security, passion for the field, parental approval, skill level and future personal growth. The group setting is even more effective, Dovan says, because students realize others are struggling with similar issues.

“They come in assuming there’s only one criterion in choosing a major, or they are looking for the career with the most amount of money and financial security. They think they have no choice because of their parents’ cultural values,” Dovan says. “After attending the workshops, they realize there are different ways to get to a decision.”

Even though students may remain committed to their original career choice, they may be more comfortable with the decision, says Dovan, “because they feel they are the ones who made it.”

Erik MakiAnita Poon, the first student services officer for Asian American studies, has the responsibility of guiding students toward “successful” careers. It’s daunting, she acknowledges. “In Asian American families, ‘success’ is defined for you by your family. It all falls under the American dream: nice home, picket fence, 2.2 kids and really nice cars—things most parents haven’t achieved, but they still have hope, as long as they see their children pursuing opportunities that they didn’t have.”

Poon believes this attitude leads to career choices that are narrowly based on financial gain. She cites a study on Asian immigrant “entrepreneurial” children by UC San Diego ethnic-studies sociologist Lisa Sun-Hee Park. That study found that Chinese and Korean American students defined success and happiness as repayment of their obligation to their immigrant parents through material gifts. Park also determined that the students believed no room existed for personal happiness while they pursued “repayment fantasies” to honor their parents’ sacrifices.

In an interview for this story with two dozen UC Davis Asian American students, a few admitted they have those same fantasies.

“My dad would like a new Lexus, and I plan to save my money to buy him one to honor the sacrifices he’s made for my education,” said one student.

Most of the students acknowledged that their parents are supportive of their emotional needs but still want to direct their future.

“My parents said, ‘Whatever makes you happy, we’ll support you. But it would be nice if you went here and majored in this…,’” one student explained.

Mike BillenaSome students, especially those from the poorer school districts in California, find going to the university a lot more difficult academically than they expected. Of the Asian American students at UC Davis, 16 percent were on academic probation after fall 2002, with certain groups especially having problems.

Susanna Lee, who was hired to work with Asian American students at the Learning Skills Center, says these students, like most on academic probation, have not learned how to study or manage their time—and they are afraid to ask for help. More importantly, Lee believes the students are having problems because they are in the wrong major.

The first quarter Lee was here, in winter 2002, she sent more than 500 e-mails offering help to Asian American students on academic probation.

“Not one replied to me,” says Lee, a Korean-born American. “So that’s when I went out to the classes where there are Asian Americans—Asian history and Asian American studies classes—and started talking to students about how I can help them.” She has found that recommendations from other students are the most effective way to attract Asian students to her program.

Michelle PaoThe problem of too-limited career aspirations is tackled head on in the Division of Biological Sciences, where Asian Americans constitute nearly half of the program. Ellen Tani, assistant dean for undergraduate academic programs, spends much of her time helping students broaden their horizons beyond medical school.

“For instance, we tell our students if they want to affect society, one career to consider is teaching K-12,” says Tani ’75, M.A. ’77, a Japanese American who graduated from UC Davis with a science degree herself. “There is always the issue of money, but I’ve had students turn down graduate school to teach because they have a love of science, and the rewards of teaching are so great.” The Division of Biological Sciences has developed a teaching internship program that sends its students into local elementary schools to help with science classes.

Especially in the last decade, Asian American students are making noticeable progress in expanding their majors beyond engineering and biological science to those in the agricultural, environmental and social sciences as well as the humanities and arts. In fact, the College of Letters and Science, by far the largest college at UC Davis, has 50 percent more Asian American student majors than does Biological Sciences, and the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, the second largest college, draws more Asian American majors than does the College of Engineering.

Rex WangConsidering Asian American studies has offered a major for only three years, it has done well, attracting about 100 participants so far, and at least 130 more students minor in the subject. Four students from the program graduated last year, 25 will be graduating this year, and nearly 50 are expected to be handed their diplomas in 2004.

According to program chair Ho, the program’s faculty fully understand they must address the career question Asian American parents ask. That is, what does one do with an Asian American studies major?

“We’ve been rethinking what our curriculum should look like in the 21st century,” Ho says. She points to career possibilities in business, public-interest law, international business, university teaching, politics and public service. Moreover, Asian American studies aims to produce critical thinkers with a breadth of knowledge and an understanding of how to solve problems in the real world.

Asian American studies faculty members have used their own experiences and scholarship to create a social and academic “space” for students to learn to succeed in multiple worlds.

One of these professors, Stan Sue, has coined a term for that success: “cultural competency.” He was hired away from UCLA in 1996 to chair the Asian American Studies Program for five years. Just awarded the UC Davis Prize for Distinguished Teaching and Scholarly Achievement, Sue is a national pioneer in helping therapists learn to deal effectively with cultural differences and helping ethnic groups to overcome shame and stigma over mental-health problems. Since arriving at UC Davis, Sue has focused on teaching students how to cross their own cultural borders to better understand race, ethnicity and prejudice.

“We live in one of the most multi-ethnic societies in the world,” Sue says. “Being effective as human beings means being able to deal with different people well.”

For some Asian American freshmen from fairly homogenous communities, coming to UC Davis is a shock. The children of Southeast Asian immigrants, especially, are torn between their family obligations as interpreters and caretakers and a demanding university world, according to Professor Bill Hing, who teaches constitutional law and immigrant rights at the UC Davis School of Law and Asian American history to undergraduates. Unable to juggle the different loyalties expected from two cultures, many students don’t form close bonds with the campus. Hing says often it’s because they leave each Friday night to go home to their families for the weekend. Some drop out.

One way Hing has found to solve that tension between family and the university is to encourage students to work in their home community through internships that he sponsors. Parents can see the university is teaching students how to fulfill their important civic duties at home. This year one Cambodian student, Sokheem Sy, worked with her former high school in Stockton to develop an after-school program based on a similar one in Merced. Another student, Kristy Saelor, created a language class for 8- to 10-year-old Mien children in Fairfield, to be delivered through her community church. Still other UC Davis students are going to high schools to help younger Asian American students be better prepared for college.

Nicole KyaukNolan Zane, UC Davis professor of psychology and Asian American studies, believes that acknowledging that cultural differences exist is the first step in helping Asian Americans learn to live in their two worlds. For example, he addresses a major cultural concern, “loss of face”—that is, how people regard you and, by extension, your family—in his psychology and Asian American studies classes. Zane’s studies of white and Asian American personalities have found that while both groups are fairly similar on most of the personality measures such as stress, self-concept, anxiety and loss of control, Asian Americans have much higher scores about concerns over loss of face.

“Loss of face brings shame, not just to oneself, but to one’s family,” Zane says. Zane expects his students to speak up and give presentations in class, but he also gives them alternatives to this more Western-oriented style of learning. For instance, in pre-exam study sessions, students can fill in cards with their questions and hand them in anonymously. He also teaches a new seminar—community grant writing in Asian American studies—that emphasizes teamwork at the beginning of the quarter but by the end requires each student to leave the security of the group to make individual presentations.

“Asian Americans come from a more collectivistic tradition and are taught to be reserved and not put themselves out there in public,” Zane explains. “But many of these students will have to promote themselves and be articulate in front of groups, and they need to become more proficient at doing it.”

Wileen RungsiridachaIt’s clear that public speaking comes naturally to some Asian American students. Many are increasingly taking on leadership roles at UC Davis: In the past 10 years, four student body presidents have been Asian American, including Peter Nguyen, Ashish Kurani, Phong La and Chia-Saun Lai. The editor of the California Aggie this past year, Fitz Vo, is Vietnamese American. And six of the 20 student assistants to the chancellor over the past decade have been Asian American.

Student Nicole Kyauk points to the Asian Pacific Islander Leadership Program, which she directed this past year, as instrumental in teaching many students about how to participate at UC Davis. The annual leadership retreat helps students gain a sense of belonging and community while they reflect on personal experiences to gain a better understanding of their values and strengths.

Pursuing a double major in communications and sociology, Kyauk said the idea of exploring her potential didn’t begin until her second year of college. During her first year, she returned home to San Leandro most weekends to be with her family.

“I wasn’t actively involved with the UC Davis community,” Kyauk admits, but she began thinking about her future. “I wanted to use college as an opportunity to find myself and challenge myself as a leader. I learned ‘you don’t find yourself, you become yourself.’”

Kyauk says that UC Davis is a friendly college community where students have many opportunities to find support and take leadership roles—whether through sororities and fraternities, the Cross-Cultural Center, religious affiliations or student government.

Rex Wang, a sophomore majoring in computer science, says he found a place for growth and acceptance with the Asian American Christian Fellowship.

“I like the friendliness and the fact that it offers an open environment where people are not as afraid to speak out and show their emotions. The AACF is like another family,” Wang explains.

Another believer in extracurricular activities is Theresa Montemayor, the once-miserable undergraduate at UC Davis, who is now associate director of the Student Programs and Activities Center.

“I tell students most of the growing at college is done outside the classroom in athletics, student organizations, internships,” Montemayor says. “You find courage within yourself and start acknowledging that a big part of your community of friends is going through the same growth pains.”

Third-year student Anita Ma of Alamo says her sorority, which is mostly white, has helped her form close friendships and connect to college life. Feeling comfortable and accepted has allowed Ma to confront her own career dilemma and the issues that accompany it. With the help of her parents, she has a new-generation happy ending to tell. The daughter of a restaurant owner and a retired machinist from China, Ma says her parents were strict with her in high school, and she didn’t share with them much about her feelings.

“Since I’ve come here I’ve dug deeper into my past to learn where my parents are at, and I think more about it myself,” Ma says. She still goes home often on the weekends and talks to her parents every day, but she’s learned to communicate with them about her problems, including a poorer academic performance than she’d hoped for.

“I started in the science field as pre-med, but now I’m pre-pharmacy,” Ma says. She realized that while her grades weren’t high enough for medical school she has a real passion for science. She has found an alternative she is happy with—a career in a medical field that is well respected and, at the same time, will allow her the flexibility to raise a family.

“I told my parents I know what I want to do now, and they said, ‘If you just try hard, that’s fine with us.’”

Susanne Rockwell ’74, M.A. ’96, covers the humanities, arts and cultural studies for the campus. Photography by Debbie Aldridge/UC Davis Mediaworks.

Our student models are:
Christina Lynes, Anglo, Chinese, Japanese and Korean
Alicia Cheung, Chinese and Malaysian
Erik Maki, Japanese American
Mike Billena, Filipino
Michelle Pao, Mongolian and Chinese
Rex Wang, Chinese
Nicole Kyauk, Chinese
Wileen Rungsiridacha, Thai


This Issue | Past Issues | Magazine Home | Search Class Notes | Send a Letter