Challenges Faced By Asian International Students Education Essay


Racial discrimination and prejudices towards racial minority groups have affected the well-beings of Asian immigrants throughout history. Though the yearly increases in Asian students enrollment seems to suggest that the institutions welcome these students, a number of psychology studies have shown that Asian students are still subject to various deleterious effects created from perceived or even imagined prejudice in predominantly white colleges. Additionally, most Asian international students originally come from ethnic communities and high schools in which they were a majority, but become a distinct ethnic minority when they enter a predominantly white college (Pewewardy & Frey, 2002). As a consequent, they are left to wonder whether they are equally valued members of the campus or are only grudgingly tolerated (Tropp & Mallett, 2010). Such ambiguity of institutional belongings is very likely to generate stress and other psychological problems that subsequently impact academic success. This paper investigates how factors that are related to Asian racial identity affect academic performances of international Asian students in predominantly white colleges in America. Because Asian international students and Asian American students come from different background and may have different cultural values and language proficiency, Asian American student are excluded in this paper and subsequent "Asian students" only refer to Asian international students.

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Meyer (2003) argues that students from ethnic minority groups not only have the general stress commonly experienced by college students, but they also suffer from "minority stress", a specific stress that results from one's identification with a group that is stigmatized and is the target of discrimination and prejudice. Since Asian students are collectivistic oriented, they put great emphasis on interdependence and group harmony, and therefore should be particularly vulnerable to negative and discriminatory interpersonal and intergroup interactions (Hwang & Goto, 2009). Moreover, Hwang and Goto (2009) also found that Asian students evidenced higher risk for trait anxiety which leads to increased perceived discrimination. In other words, Asian students are more prone to psychological stress from racial discrimination. The stress puts Asian students in peril of psychological distress, suicidal ideation, and clinical depression (e.g., Yoo and Lee, 2009). Understanding the sources of possible discrimination is crucial for finding methods to reduce such stress and improve Asian students' well-being and academic performances. I postulate that, besides direct experiences of racism and discrimination, prejudice and discrimination towards Asian college students are caused by two ethnicity-auxiliary factors: face processing and language deficiency.

Face Processing

The first race-auxiliary factor that contributes to prejudice formation is the underlying mechanisms of face processing. Since people have limited information processing capacity and schemas provide useful shortcut for decision making, people resort to stereotypes when they meet people from other races (Whitley & Kite, 2010). People's faces are also categorized by race (Zarate, et al, 2008). When Caucasians confront with Asians, remarks such as "They all look alike to me" are often heard (Malpass, 1981). In face recognition, the term "cross-race (CR) effect" refers to the frequently observed phenomenon that people have greater difficulty to recognize faces from another ethnic group than from their own group (Anthony, Copper, & Mullen, 1992). Such difficulty is exhibited in greater out-group homogeneity ("they all look alike") (Sporer, 2001), cross-race recognition deficit (inability to recall faces previously seen) (Sporer, 2001), and cross-race classification advantage (other-race faces are quickly categorized as members of that race) (Levin, 1996). Instead of making efforts to individualize Asian faces, Caucasians tend to categorize them and have difficulty spotting the variations among them.

Such differential ability to process faces is especially problematic in a college setting. College should be the place where students develop their unique potentials and strive for different aspirations. Because students vary in personalities, life goals, and learning abilities, colleges should treat them as distinct individuals and teach them in accordance with their aptitude and temperament. However, the cross-race effect in face processing tremendously lowers the quality of Asian students' received education. Due to the outgroup homogeneity effect and cross-race classification advantage, when Caucasians meet Asians students, Asian students are automatically categorized as a collective "they" against Caucasian students as a collective "we". The categorization process involves a generalization about a group of people in which certain traits are assigned to virtually all members of the group, regardless of actual variation among the members (Whitley & Kite, 2010). Because of the psychological similarity among all Asian students, they are generalized and superimposed with their racial stereotypes. In a predominantly white college, usually both students and professors do not have extensive visual exposure or contact experiences with Asian students. The lack of former activates the "they-all-look-alike" mental representation, while the lack of latter necessitates the use of stereotype because they have no previous knowledge about how to interact with Asian students. Consequently, professors generally hold the same expectations for all Asian students despite their individual differences, and the same expectations greatly hinder Asian students' academic success. For example, assuming all Asians are good mathematicians, a college advisor is very likely to recommend a math-related career to all Asian students, even including those who are bad at math. In this way, many Asian students only have limited information to a certain range of academic fields, and never get enough chance to explore their potentials. In the end, they either end up with self-fulfilling prophecy and become the perpetrators of their own stereotypes, or become academic underachievers because they choose careers that they are not good at.

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Moreover, developing close relationships with Caucasian professors and students is very hard for Asian students, because Caucasian professors will always have trouble recalling having met a particular Asian student. In a typical cross-race experiment where participants are presented with sets of photographs of own-race and other-race members and are later asked to recognize whether they have seen these faces, most participants do a much better job at recognizing faces of their own-race (e.g., Levin, 1996; Takana, et al, 2004). This cross-race recognition deficit is very robust unless there are frequent interactions where individuating attention is paid to the students. However, if there are several Asian students in the same college, it'll be especially difficult for any individual Asian student to stand out academically and gain professors' closer attention. Since most of the time Asian students are viewed as members of their ethnicity group, the positive achievement of Asian students is less likely to gain professors' long-term attention because the achievement is attributed to the entire group ("a great job done by an Asian student") and gets diluted during the process. Likewise, negative incidents from one of the Asian students are likely to trigger one-shot illusory correlation because a single instance of distinctiveness is sufficient to create a stereotypic association between uncommon group membership and unusual behavior (Whitley and Kite, 2010). The negative incidents are assigned to all Asian students in that school, generating the impression that Asian students are "trouble-makers" and leading to further alienation of these students. The cycle continues while Asian students receive less and less individuating attention and become increasingly segregated from college communities. According to sociometer theory (Leary, et al., 1995), social exclusion will lead to a drop in self-esteem among these Asian students. Feeling rather unwelcomed and unconfident, these students are less likely to seek help from professors when they have academic questions, and feel that they are the targets of unfair treatment by faculty, staff, and other students (Ancis, Sedlacek, & Mohr, 2000). As a result, Asian students anxiously expect, readily perceive, intensely react to status-based rejection, and consequently experience greater discomfort during the college transition, which leads to declines in grades over a 2- to 3-year period (Mendoza-Denton, et al., 2002). Other than stress from self-imposed segregation, being underachievers creates what Carter (2007) calls "achievement stress", which is, feelings of being less intelligent or less capable than others, or the pressure of high expectations for college success from one's family. These pressures and stress undermine Asian students' personal growth and personal expressiveness, positive relationships with others, self-actualization, and meaning and purpose in life - all of which are salient dimensions of wellness (Berk, 2006).

Language Proficiency

Another race-related factor that can potentially exacerbate the negative effects of minority stress is the language proficiency of Asian students. Remarks about Asians' weird English accents are prevalent among comedy shows on TV. Foreigners are funny people who speak English with a heavy accent, like Apu in "The Simpsons" (Pavlenko, 2001). The non-American-standard accents always seem to be a barrier for Caucasian students to consider Asian students as their ingroup members. Asian students with accents are often stereotyped as foreigners, exotic, or the perpetual alien (Abrew, Ramires, Kim, & Haddy, 2003). Adapting to American community is all about language (Danquah, 2000). The difficulty of immersion with Caucasian students leads Asian students to form their own exclusive communities on campus, which further reinforces the misconception that "it's hard to make friends with Asian students" and leads to more segregation.

People in general have desires to maintain positive self-images. Assuming that Asian students are bad English speakers and unwilling to be a "bad people" to embarrass them, Caucasian students might employ a strategy similar to elderspeak or patronizing speech (Whitley and Kite, 2010) when talking to Asian students: he may use higher voice pitch, slow speech rate, and shorter utterances with limited vocabulary to make sure the listener understand the conversation regardless of the listener's actual English proficiency. The patronizing speech can generate anxiety and self-doubt among Asian student listeners. According to Hornsey (2008), individuals who choose an ingroup may become highly sensitive to environmental cues related to that aspect of their ingroup. Since race is a salient feature to determine group affiliation, those who identify more strongly with their Asian ethnicities should be more sensitive to the challenges against their ingroup and are more likely to interpret potentially ambiguous situations that may not be explicitly racist as being discriminatory. In this case, Asian students who identify strongly with their ethnicity may be more primed to pick up ambiguous cues during conversations and interpret them as negative. Patronizing speech may lower Asian students' self-esteem and confidence because they may consider that they are being treated as inferior human beings (Sellers & Shelton, 2000).

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Furthermore, for those Asian students to whom English is their second language, deficiency of oral English greatly constrains their expressiveness in their everyday lives on campus. The linguistic competence is the key to success in the American society. Lacking role models in predominantly white colleges, these Asian students are "unimagined" and they have to explore and construct their own pathways to success (Pavlenko, 2001). However, according to Pavlenko, for these "language handicapped students", the freedom of choosing who they are is rather deceptive, because due to inadequate language skills, certain subjectivities may be rejected or simply not understood by the interlocutors while others are forcefully imposed. Asian students' English may not be good enough to describe the complex emotions they experience, so they often "visualize what [they] wanted to express and consciously leave out the words because they are inadequate" (Kim, 2000), or "think like a genius, write like a distinguished author, and speak like a child" (Pinker, 1994). Since they can't express themselves efficiently, Caucasian students often have to guess what they are trying to say, which gives rise to misunderstanding or superimposition of listeners' own subjectivities. Such misunderstanding or imposition of ideas from Caucasian students is highly probable to activate stereotypes, because these stereotypes are the only available mental resources to interpret the conversations. Additionally, the conversations between Caucasian and Asian students are often limited to the basic level. Assuming Asian students are "language handicapped", fluent English speakers tend to narrow the conversation topics, which often lead to awkward silence, making it hard for Asian students to develop intimate cross-race friendships. Consequently, Asian students retreat to their comfort zones and become increasingly disengaged from the campus community. The campus exclusion can generate social exclusion stress and feeling alienated from the campus community can impact academic success (Tropp & Mallett, 2010). In turn, achievement stress and other psychological problems are generated and the overall well-beings of Asian students deteriorate.

Prejudice Reduction and Implications

Since college is a formative period when many students are searching and developing their self-concept (Berk, 2006), reducing psychological minority stress is crucial for ensuring Asian students' well-rounded development and well-beings. Now that we've identified the mechanisms that result in the stress of Asian students, we can develop strategies to counteract these mechanisms.

In terms of face processing, since cross-race effect is an innate disposition of human beings that results from lack of familiarity to outgroup and motivations (Levin, 1996), reducing it takes great efforts and it's very easy for Caucasians to choose the easier way by not interacting with Asian students. However, such avoidant behavior may even exacerbate the situation by continuing the lack of familiarity and motivation, and further perpetuate the differential treatments between Asian and Caucasian students. To reduce outgroup homogeneity effect, Caucasian faculties, staffs, and students (if not otherwise specified, they will be referred to as "Caucasians") should change their thinking patterns when it comes to cross-race interactions. Instead of treating all Asian students as homogeneous members that belong to a certain racial group, Caucasians should think Asian students in terms of individuals and should be motivated to pay more attention to their distinguishing features. The increased familiarity and motivation will lead to individuations and add perceived complexity to Asian students' identities that allows professors to treat each Asian student as a distinct individual. The complexity leads Caucasians to see Asian students as multifaceted and complex human beings rather than thinking all Asian students in a broad term "Asian". The individuating attention helps professors to avoid using racial stereotypes and to develop person-specific strategies to help different Asian students to fully explore their potentials in a wider range of possibilities. This attention also increases Asian students' self-esteem and subsequently improves their academic performances, alleviating minority stress and achievement stress.

As for language disadvantage, the problem should be looked at from both Asian students and Caucasians. On Asian students' side, instead of focusing on their own language disadvantage, they can focus on the pride of their ethnicity. Many Asian students have the similar feelings that "More than anything, I want to obscure my foreignness (Mar, 1999, p.158)." They overemphasize the importance of assimilation and underplay the pride in their unique cultures and ethnicities, which may generate "within-group conflict" (being viewed as "acting white") (Carter, 2007) and lead to more stress. Research has shown that although strong identification with one's ethnicity may lead individuals to be more sensitive to ethnicity-related prejudice, at the same time, the pride in one's ethnicity may serve as a buffer against the effects of frequent racial discriminations (Yoo & Lee, 2009). Rather than overemphasizing the importance of "perfect American accents", Asian students should consider their accents to be a unique aspect of their ethnic background which they take pride in. Those Asian students who have a fairly good command of English should be proactive and demonstrate to Caucasians their language proficiency. After frequent contact, Caucasians will be more comfortable to discuss broader and deeper subjects with Asian students. The broadened range of topics paves ways for self-disclosure processes. Self-disclosures reduce anxiety and reliance on stereotypes and are beneficial for inter-race friendship development because they reveal previously unknown similarities between individuals, heighten interpersonal attractions, and increase the perceived self-other overlap (Tropp & Mallett, 2010). On Caucasians' side, colleges should conduct workshops and support groups that acknowledge the experience of discrimination across many settings with some specific tailoring by ethnicity (Huwang & Goto, 2009). This is especially helpful in promoting awareness of the value of diversity and cultural acceptance on campus. Caucasians should also be informed to cognitively prevent themselves from assuming all Asian students' have language disadvantages, so they can avoid using patronizing speech/elderspeak. In this way, cross-group friendship is more likely to be created, and by facilitating a more in-depth understanding of the outgroup through increased perspective taking and empathy, the friendship improves institutional adjustment among individuals who have reasons to question their acceptance in colleges (Tropp & Mallett, 2010).

Last but not least, this paper also suggests that, not only ethnicity itself, but also race related factors can contribute to stereotype formation and create minority stress. How differences of ethnicity bring up prejudice is complex problem. Quoting H. L. Mencken, "For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple and neat - and it's always wrong." Instead of only focusing on race itself, we should also delve into race-related factors so as to get a more comprehensive understanding of stereotype and minority stress formation and to reduce prejudice and discrimination more effectively.