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Bridging Research and Practice to Support Asian American Students

Dina C. Maramba
Corinne Maekawa Kodama


Number 160 • Winter 2017


San Francisco

Editors’ Notes

The last time a New Directions for Student Services (NDSS) volume specifically focused on Asian American students was 15 years ago titled Working with Asian American College Students (McEwen, Kodama, Alvarez, Lee, & Liang, 2002). It broke new ground as the literature on Asian Americans in higher education was very limited. The goal of that volume was to start a conversation that would spur others to conduct more research on Asian American students and translate those findings into effective student affairs practice. However, though the empirical research has grown, student affairs educators have yet to take full advantage of existing scholarship to inform their practice. Thus, there is a vital need for an updated guide to help understand the Asian American student population, not just demographic information and salient issues but also new paradigms and more innovative ways of thinking about how to best meet their needs.

Why would we choose to put together another NDSS on Asian Americans? Because in our experiences of interacting with educators at professional conferences and consulting with college campuses, we have observed every year that the same questions arise about how to best support Asian American college students. Educators still ask how to reach out to Asian American students and what interventions are needed, and they wonder why developmental theories framed from an individualistic perspective (and still widely taught in professional graduate programs) may not be appropriate lenses through which to understand Asian American students. When we and our colleagues try to focus the conversation on specific topics about Asian American students, we find that many practitioners expect a talk about international students or wonder why we are bothering to attend to students who are commonly perceived as the “model minority.” We observe surprise when we share how much racism and identity struggles affect Asian Americans students’ college experiences. There is often little understanding of the diversity of the Asian American population and the ramifications of rapidly changing demographics might have on the types of programs and services our institutions provide for this student population. Thus, our goal is to bring some of these issues into the forefront of student affairs work by situating them within the latest scholarship about Asian American students and providing considerations for practice.

This sourcebook is a resource for new and seasoned educators and practitioners as well as for students. As former student affairs practitioners ourselves, we believe it is crucial for educators to have a basic understanding of the needs, experiences, and theoretical frameworks relevant to Asian Americans in order to both inform your work and challenge your thinking about how best to serve this diverse population. For those of you new to learning about Asian American students, we hope the information in this volume will provide you with knowledge that can broaden your perspectives on today's college students. For those already working with Asian American students, we hope this volume will provide you with evidence to support and/or advocate for your programs and services as well as additional ideas for best practices. For Asian American students, we hope this sourcebook will help to validate and make sense of your own experiences as you move through your college career.

Who Are Asian American Students Today?

Describing the diversity of the Asian American population could fill an entire book in itself, much beyond the scope of this sourcebook. However, we will provide some basic information about demographics here. It is estimated that by 2050, the U.S. population of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders will reach 40 million. Although Asian Americans make up approximately 5% of the total U.S. population, they are very unevenly distributed throughout different regions of the United States. The 2010 census recorded 20 Asian American groups and 10 Pacific Islander ethnic groups (CARE, 2013b). Thus, given demographic and cultural differences among these various ethnic groups, the need to disaggregate Asian data by ethnicity is important to better understand the educational needs and experiences of this diverse population. Note that a more involved discussion about the diversity of Asian American populations is in Chapter 1 (Chan).

Asian Americans make up approximately 3% of today's college students, though the percentage varies widely across institutions, from less than 1% on some campuses to over 40% on others. Between 1990 and 2000 there was a great increase in Asian American college students, 73.3% increase in community colleges and 42.3% increase at public 4-year colleges and universities. In fact, today more than half of Asian American students are in community colleges, despite the stereotype of Asian Americans as concentrated in elite universities (CARE, 2011).

What's in a Name?

Given the diversity of ethnic groups encompassed by Asian America, there is great debate over the terms used to name the collective population both within and outside of the Asian American community. Although “Asian American” seems to be the most common and generally accepted term, it is also perceived to not be fully inclusive of ethnic subgroups such as Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (e.g., Samoan, Tongan) or South Asians (e.g., Bangladeshi, Indian, and Pakistani), thus giving rise to such terms as “Asian American and Pacific Islander” (AAPI), “Asian Pacific American” (APA), and “Asian Pacific Islander Desi American” (APIDA).

However, we also believe that use of terms should be balanced with an awareness of which populations are actually being served under those labels. For example, even in programs or studies called AAPI, in reality there are often no Pacific Islanders participants or attention to their specific needs, thus suggesting inclusion where there is none. Pacific Islanders are distinct from the Asian American population in many ways. For example, they are racialized differently and have unique historical colonial relationships with the U.S. (Hall, 2015). It is important to note that the U.S. census no longer considers Pacific Islanders as part of the Asian American community even though institutions continue to group them together (CARE, 2013b). South Asian Americans have also had a complicated relationship with the “Asian American” term given a historical East Asian bias. The term “Desi,” originating from a Sanskrit word meaning “land” or “country,” is commonly used within group among South Asians in the United States to refer to people from the Indian subcontinent living abroad (though with a loose definition of which countries are included). However, the use of “Desi” as an identifier (e.g., in “APIDA”) is also widely debated, with different perceptions perhaps because of generation, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and regional context (Accapadi, 2012; Modi, 2017).

We have had many conversations with our colleagues about what terms to use in this volume, with diverse and often opposing views on which labels are appropriate and meaningful as well as relevant to students. We have decided to use the term “Asian American” in the title of this sourcebook to appropriately reflect the population of focus while also recognizing its limitations. However, we have asked chapter authors to use the term most appropriate for the work they are doing (and citing), so the terms used throughout the volume may vary.

About the “Model Minority”

The dominant narrative that has perhaps most influenced a misunderstanding of (and lack of attention to) the Asian American student population is the “model minority” stereotype. Coined in the 1960s, it was originally used to refer to second-generation Chinese and Japanese Americans’ economic success as characteristics of “good” minorities, specifically as a way for the white supremacist system to contrast stereotypes of African American communities during the heightened racial climate of the time (Poon et al., 2016). Over time the meaning and scope of this stereotype expanded into higher education, uncritically framing nearly every discussion of Asian American college students that continues today. Yet ironically the term “model minority” is inconsistently (or not at all) defined, and usually without reference to its history as a tool of racial politics and division (Poon et al., 2016). However, we agree with Poon et al. (2016) that the dominance of this problematic term in higher education limits the scope of how we understand Asian American college students, and freeing ourselves from this paradigm will allow us to truly examine and understand the wide range of issues facing Asian American students in college.

Where This Volume Is Headed

For this volume, we include eight chapters that present complex discourse and bridge research and practice for effective support of Asian American students. The volume opens with Chan's chapter on the multidimensional aspects of racial and ethnic identity development as a foundation for understanding the chapters in the rest of the volume, given the importance of identity to nearly every aspect of Asian American students’ college experiences. This is followed by Kodama's and Maramba's chapter, which expands the discussion of identity development as central to understanding Asian American student development, exploring new paradigms and challenging traditional conceptualizations of theory. They challenge practitioners to broaden their theoretical perspectives and incorporate their experiences working with Asian Americans in developing a more appropriate understanding of student development. Park and Dizon, in Chapter 3, focus on the often overlooked roles that religion and spirituality may play in the college experiences of Asian Americans. In Chapter 4, Kodama and Huynh introduce Asian American issues related to academic and career development and suggest strategies for improving advising approaches. In Chapter 5, Manzano, Poon, and Na challenge the notion of Asian American students as apathetic and provide an innovative conceptual model for understanding leadership and activist engagement. In Chapter 6, Liang, Liu, Nguyen, and Song provide an overview of the psychological health and help-seeking behaviors of Asian American college students that may significantly influence their college experiences and development. In Chapter 7, Accapadi shares her personal experiences and reflections in inviting student affairs practitioners and higher education institutions to be intentional, thoughtful, and transformational in order to provide supportive practices for Asian American students. Accapadi's chapter provides important context for the rest of the volume, and thus we encourage readers to read it along with any of the other chapters. Finally, we close the volume with selected tools and resources to help student affairs educators think critically about their practice, engage in discussion with colleagues, and continue learning about this diverse and complex population.

Throughout these chapters you may notice some overlap in the issues raised, an unavoidable consequence of the intersectionality and integration of different aspects of Asian American college students’ lives. In particular, you will notice a recurring theme of the role of race and racism in navigating college experiences that has dominated both the research and practice on Asian Americans in recent years. This may be a new perspective for many of you given that Asian Americans are often left out of the racial conversation on today's campuses. However, given the current political climate where racial divides and tensions have been more prevalent, the inclusion of Asian Americans in this discourse is crucial.

Looking to the Future

We hope this sourcebook will help you begin to develop greater awareness of and sensitivity to the many ways in which the Asian American population has been misunderstood and underserved in higher education. However, this volume should not be taken as the be-all and end-all for learning about Asian American students given the many other important topics we were not able to cover such as the discussion of Asian American community college students (Assalone & Fann, 2016; Maramba, 2013; Teranishi, Maramba, & Ta, 2012); Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions or AANAPISIs (CARE 2013a, Teranishi, Alcantar, Martin, & Nguyen, 2015); multicultural/Asian American resource centers; and the role of Asian American studies (Alvarez & Liu, 2002). Nevertheless, we hope that this volume will help demystify some of the complex issues facing Asian American students and serve as a guide for effectively integrating research and practice to best support Asian American students in college.

Dina C. Maramba
Corinne M. Kodama


  1. Accapadi, M. M. (2012). Asian American identity consciousness: A polycultural model. In D. Ching & A. Agbayani (Eds.), Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in higher education: Research and perspectives on identity, leadership, and success (57–94). Washington, DC: NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.
  2. Alvarez, A. N., & Liu, W. M. (2002). Student affairs and Asian American studies: An integrative perspective. In M. K. McEwen, C. M. Kodama, A. N. Alvarez, S. Lee, & C. T. H. Liang (Eds.), New Directions for Student Services: No. 97. Working with Asian American college students (pp. 73–80). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  3. Assalone, A. E., & Fann, A. (2016). Understanding the influence of model minority stereotypes on Asian American community college students. Community College Journal of Research and Practice.
  4. CARE: National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education. (2011). The relevance of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the college completion agenda. Los Angeles: Author.
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  11. Poon, O., Squire, D., Kodama, C., Byrd, A., Chan, J., Manzano, L., … Bishundat, D. (2016). A critical review of the model minority myth in selected literature on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in higher education. Review of Educational Research, 86(2), 469–502.
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