Remodeling the Model Minority

When people think of Asian-Americans, there are a lot of stereotypes that come up. They’re quiet. They’re well-educated. They’re affluent. With such a plethora of (mostly) positive assumptions, many erroneously believe that Asians do not face struggles like other racial and ethnic minorities. That isn’t true. 

Besides, of course, the specter of blatant racism, many other less-visible issues are scattered throughout the lives of Asian-American college students. From struggling to file their college applications to feeling left out in many fields of study, here are some of the problems facing Asian-American students here at the University of Iowa.


For many Asian students, the battle begins even before they’ve stepped foot on campus. Coming from immigrant families who aren’t used to how the American college system works, they often can’t turn to their parents for support and advice when applying for school, leaving them to figure it out on their own.

For Kayla Nguyen, a second-year studying public health, this was the case. Being a first-generation college student, compounded with her parents’ immigrant status, made applying for college a nerve-wracking process.

“I think the main thing would be money, because they didn’t understand why I would have to pay an acceptance fee or an application fee to college,” she said. “They just thought you would go, and so we were scattering around a lot like trying to find money to even accept my application here when I did get accepted.”

Illustrations by Elisabeth Oster

This lack of knowledge also extended to her pursuit of financial aid. “They didn’t really understand why I was applying for scholarships, either,” she said. 

Like many Asian parents, her parents were not necessarily prepared for the rigorous process of applying for college in the United States, which, thanks in part to the increasing competitiveness of schools and the rising cost of tuition, has grown to encompass far beyond grades and test scores.

“They thought it was really easy to get one, but I would have to write essays. I wanted to write more about my parents’ story to talk about my college experience or like my high school coming into college experience, but it was really difficult for them to understand why I was doing all of these extracurriculars and why I was staying up so late studying. They just thought you can instantly get into college.”


Once they’ve finally secured that sweet, sweet acceptance letter, they aren’t through with their problems. College life is also wrought with its own set of challenges. It can be hard to confidently go on studying in a field where you lack role models—or even just Asian classmates.

This dearth of representation is especially large in the humanities and the arts. Millie Brewer, a junior transfer student, majoring in English with a double minor in music and philosophy, knows this very well. 

“I’m taking a fight writing class and then another creative writing class—like I think there’s only one African American person in there, each,” she said.

One result of this lack of representation, she said, is that common conceptions about the struggles Asian-Americans face restrict how vocal she can be. 

“It’s very difficult to assert my identity in certain spheres,” Brewer said. “They’re like, ‘oh, your struggles aren’t as bad as Hispanic or African-American populations.’” 

The idea that Asian-American issues do not merit the same consideration and advocacy that other minorities’ do is age-old. As Brewer said, “It’s like, how do I acknowledge intersectionality without being completely aggressive? There’s this stereotype of the model minority, that they [Asians] don’t speak out as much. They’re not really expected to be really abrasive. It’s just really difficult trying to be able to talk about it without being without coming off as being too aggressive or, like, aggressive in the wrong way compared to other minorities.”

And while many racial and ethnic minorities struggle to find just another student of color in the STEM field, the problem for Asians is not simply a lack of representation, but specifically a lack of role models and mentors.

Demi Oo, a Burmese-Chinese sophomore studying human physiology on the pre-med track, has run into this problem in her experiences in the medical field. “There aren’t very many Asian doctors that could be seen as role models. The only one that I can think of is the actor from Grey’s Anatomy,” she said. “I don’t know any Burmese doctors within the United States; I only know them back home. And there’s only one Burmese doctor that I know within the whole United States.”

She added, “When you see Asian people in STEM on television, it’s usually like East Asian or Southeast Asian like Chinese, Korean, [and] Japanese people. But then like, what I’ve noticed in the States that I’ve seen are like Indian people or South Asian, rather than people that look like me. I have a mentor through Medicus on campus. And she’s also South Asian, I think, Sri Lankan. The only two remotely Asian people on TV that look like me are the one on Grey’s Anatomy and Ken Jeong.”


After leaving campus for the last time, the workforce proves just as much of a formidable foe as the classroom ever was. Over a decade ago, in Jane Hyun’s book Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians, she coined the term “bamboo ceiling”—a “cap” on professional development for Asians analogous to the glass ceiling for women. Described as a combination of individual, cultural, and organizational factors that prevent many Asian employees from moving into higher-up positions, such as managerial or executive positions, it has become a talking point ever since.

Despite being relatively well-educated, with around 54% of the adult population holding college degrees according to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the workplace, those advanced degrees don’t often translate to professional advancement.

According to Brewer, this is in part due to common expectations of success for Asian-Americans. “In high school, you get an A. Everyone expects [that from] you, like, ‘Oh yeah you’re Asian, you should be getting A’s, because that’s what’s expected of you.’ And so, that’s different for a white person who goes, ‘Oh, I got an A’, and they’re like, ‘Oh, congratulations, you must have worked hard,’” she said. “It’s just kind of that mindset.”

It also may have to do with intercultural pressure to go into certain jobs. “In my eyes, the bamboo ceiling, it’s taking the route that your parents don’t want you to take or like taking the route less-traveled by Asian Americans,” said Nguyen. “I really want to work in nonprofits and work in policymaking, but I know my parents are not happy with that. They’ve definitely told me that it’s not a real job, or that working in nonprofits and building houses for like Peace Corps is not real or realistic. And it’s really discouraging having parents telling you that, ‘Oh yeah, you should chase your dreams, but not those’.”

While on the surface they may appear to be coasting through college, there are a lot of less obvious issues for Asian-American college students. From filing for FAFSA to finding fellow Asians in their fields, there still remain a number of hidden roadblocks on the way to success for many of these students, who oftentimes must fight preconceived notions about Asian success. In terms of equality, for Asian students, there remains a long way to go.

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