The Perception Gap

Notice the faces. The Asian ones. These “new Jews,” as author Daniel Golden termed them, are on campuses across the country. Making that same comparison, Jonathan Zimmerman in the Chronicle of Higher Education says at one point Jews were up to 12 percent of college student bodies and faculty, yet not even three percent of U.S. population. The suggestion: at six percent of the population, Asian American and Pacific Islanders (or AAPIs) do so well in gaining acceptance into places like Harvard — where they make up 21 percent of the class of 2016 — all is fine when it comes to education in the AAPI community.

While perhaps true for one side of the AAPI community, an opposite exists. Over 60 percent of certain AAPI segments have not attended college according to the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education. And poverty compounds the problem. In New York City for instance, one out of two AAPI children are born into poverty, making college a distant and expensive dream (Coalition for Asian American Children and Families).

Anecdotally, I’ve known a good number of AAPIs who didn’t attend top 10 universities, and in some cases, decided to forgo college altogether.

Like me.

For many years, I didn’t like to talk about my education. I almost flunked out of high school twice. At my first high school I had more than 100 absences a year. The dean kicked me out after junior year. So the district sent me to the high school my two older brothers and father graduated from. It had gangs, kids of various backgrounds, and autoshop. I liked it.

One afternoon the principal stopped me in the hall: “Your mom came by today. We’re fellow former teachers. She was so worried she cried. And your father was there too.” The principal said he’d look after me, and I said I’d do my best. But reaching 200 credits was mathematically impossible; I would flunk.

Weeks later, the principal made a deal. I could graduate five short, and despite semester GPAs reaching 0.2 (which is slightly below an F+ average if that grade existed).

After graduation, I skipped college. My family was poor. My father was a youth pastor turned social worker; my mother, a stay-at-home mom with four kids. At one point we were on welfare receiving food stamps. Instead, I worked for Mrs. Fields Cookies.

Four years passed and when I turned 22, the age many students graduate, I realized I couldn’t work in cookies forever and so I made an effort to attend college. But I hadn’t taken the SAT and with dismal high school grades, no university would take me. City College of San Francisco, at $50 a credit, did.

At City College of San Francisco (CCSF), I enjoyed education again. I joined the speech team (something I credit with my current career). My English instructor encouraged me to read more than local papers like theWashington Post and Wall Street Journal. My interest in politics grew, and I became campaign manager for an incumbent running for a citywide position that managed CCSF. After two years at CCSF, I completed an associate’s degree, and because I qualified for loans I didn’t before, I transferred to UC Berkeley to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Being Asian in America can mean so many different things.

It can mean your family originates from one of 49 countries, most having different languages (U.S. Census).

It can mean you’re 10th generation American, a descendent of Chinese and Filipino immigrants from the 1700s.

And it can mean you’re one of the 74 percent of AAPI adults born in another country, perhaps fleeing here as a Hmong or Vietnamese refugee (Pew).

When it comes to AAPIs, averages fail. Stereotypes fail. There are kids from overlooked AAPI communities that don’t go to college, don’t have enough for tuition, and don’t believe education transforms. This doesn’t sync with the idea of the Asian American “archetype.” It’s a perception gap. And it can be closed by simply accepting that people like me don’t fit the mold.