The Burden of Higher Education: College and Asian American Expectations


Photo by Sean Kong

As March rolled around, thousands of students in the United States — and around the world — anxiously awaited their college admission results. Years of hard work all came down to the few seconds between opening a letter and reading either, “Congratulations!” or, “We’re sorry to inform you…” For many families, college is a big deal, but for Asian Americans, it tends to define a child’s entire childhood. Parental pressure to do well in their academics often weighs heavily on students of Asian descent, and, as results trickle out from their (or their parent’s) dream universities, it can be hard to control feelings of anxiety as many fear disappointing their entourage. In the end, some may not understand their parents’ motivation in pushing them to academically succeed, and thus may even ask themselves if going to a “good” college truly matters. Ah, the age old question… with no universally correct answer, really. Between replies of, “An education’s an education!” and, “Well, the more prestigious the name, the better the outcome,” it’s hard to come to a single conclusion.

In Asian American households, success not only is expected from students, but it is almost set as a standard. If the next door neighbors’ two daughters can each respectively go to Harvard and Yale, then so can mine, right? Not quite. A student’s ability to succeed heavily depends on their environment growing up and the resources available to them. For immigrant parents, where their child goes to school can represent physical proof that their hard work paid off, so telling them that college “does not matter” is likely to fall on deaf ears. In fact, NBC News states college acceptances can, for some people, be representative of sociopolitical status, which is why higher education is so highly valued. The emphasis on good education in Asian households pushes the stereotype that all of us are incredibly intelligent (especially in the maths and sciences), but fails to account for the fact that we don’t only succeed because we’re “born smart,” but because we put in the work that’s needed for us to accomplish our goals. Furthermore, that work ethic directly comes as a result of increased familial pressure to do well, so while Asian students may seem happy about gaining perfect scores on standardized tests, some could be miserable at home. With parents continuously pushing them to do better than the kid next door, it’s understandable how stressed Asian students could be as college admission results come out — this could very well determine their relationship with their families; whether they’ll gleefully congratulate their child or chastise them for falling short.

Thus, my message to my fellow Asian American peers is, while you may see your classmates getting accepted to what you thought was going to be your dream school, rest assured that your time will come. Whether it be in two weeks when you receive your admission letter to an amazing school, or in two years when you land an impressive internship without the help of a prestigious college name to back you up, it will someday be your turn. Take it from me: last year, I was in your exact same position. Sitting in my room, just as the pandemic had started and school had moved to an online setting, I was even more nervous about my future than before. When my first admission results came out from a local university, I grew even more agitated as I opened the letter just to find out they had waitlisted me. Over the next few weeks, I continued growing restless as I witnessed my peers getting accepted into increasingly impressive schools. It wasn’t until late March that things turned around for me, and that’s when I received my acceptance letter in the mail from UC Berkeley. And while I consider myself extremely lucky, it’s important for all the students out there stressing about college acceptances to understand that this will not be the end-all-be-all for you. Though attending prestigious universities may be a dream for many, it is not the only path to success. And while it is true that the previously mentioned schools, Harvard and Yale, may have connections and resources that are inaccessible to students from local state colleges, the latter students still have the opportunity to build their own network from scratch by putting themselves out there and working hard for what they want. There are options for everybody out there, the key to success lies not only in the school you attend, but also what you’re able to accomplish with the resources available to you. Be proactive in your quest for knowledge, and learn from your mistakes as you inch towards your goals.

And if you happen to not get into your dream university right now, then rest assured because your time will come.





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