Growing up Asian American in high school, you’re commonly placed into one of two social categories: The model minority study geek, or the delinquent Asian gangster. At least that’s how it was at my high school.
While the closet nerd inside of me adored books and studies, I didn’t want to be socially ostracized. I wanted to fit in, to be “cool”, so instead of the calculator and pencil protectors, I opted for the Timberland boots, baggie pants, and bubble jacket. I went out and made friends with the toughest kids I could. Of my social circle, I was one of three to graduate high school, the only one to go to college. Most of my friends were Southeast Asian American.
At the time I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t think it was a statistical trend or reflective of social conditioning, I just thought that’s how my friends were. But recent studies at NYU and statistical findings from local school representatives have found that Pacific Islander and Southeast Asian (Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laos, and Hmong) students have a growing dropout rate that is quickly surpassing all other ethnic groups. The question then follows, why in these communities?
Some in the school district propose a “culture of poverty”, claiming that “family understanding of, or commitment to completing education is undervalued in this demographic due to adult role models not being highly educated. Getting multiple laborious jobs, having children and tending to family matters are more highly valued and celebrated than education.”
Of course this point of view conveniently absolves responsibility from the public school district and instead places the burden on the family. Dedicated scholars on the issue, such as UW Ethnic Studies professor Connie So, adamantly oppose such arguments.
“It is true that the parents commonly lack college education, but that doesn’t mean education isn’t highly valued,” retorts So. “Most adults in these households consider a college degree important, it’s just that many of them haven’t had the opportunity to gain one themselves.”
The UW Senior Lecturer adds the lack of social role modeling in the school further attributes to the booming dropout rate.
“Much of the coursework doesn’t relate to their experience,” Professor So continues. “The result is that many of these students don’t feel welcomed or included in the school.” Anyone who has taken an academic course, done a homework assignment or even read a leisure novel can attest that material relating to our personal lives is always much easier to absorb.
But to be fair, given the diversity of the Northwest, it is virtually impossible for school districts to accommodate academic curriculum towards the experience of every ethnic group. Teachers are already poorly paid, school programs are already underfunded, and trying to spread the little they have even further just isn’t realistic. Sometimes simplifying the demographic makeup is a utilitarian decision for the greater good, not an attempt to leave out a particular part of the study body.
Yet brushing distinct groups under the collective rug of “Asian” is problematic. It simplifies the complex histories that exist within different communities and dropout rates tend to go under the radar due to the achievement statistics of other APIA groups. Likewise, the socially polarized dichotomization of APIA students to “delinquents” or “model minority” creates an inconsolable relationship between peer acceptance and academic achievement. Somewhere, that social and academic balance needs to exist.
Amongst my friends, I eventually earned the nickname “college boy”, as I suppose my interest in school couldn’t be suppressed. Yet despite the lackluster in their own school attendance, they always encouraged my studies, dissuaded me from illicit self-destructive behavior, and never ridiculed me for my academic talent, which I had been so naively afraid of. I guess another thing I didn’t realize was how much they were doing for me at the time..