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Articles > Asian American students push to reveal what the 'model minority' myth hides

Apr 10, 2017
by Anna Boiko-Weyrauch

Asian American students push to reveal what the 'model minority' myth hides

Ekk Sisavatdy, left, helps an incoming freshman at Highline College in Burien, Washington, as part of a program that assists Asian American and Pacific Islander students.

Credit:  Anna Boiko-Weyrauch


Between three jobs and a full academic course schedule, University of Washington senior Sam Le is always on the go. He also plans to graduate on time this June. But that wasn’t the case when he was a freshman and nearly flunked out.

“I was taking hard classes early on and I was commuting really far,” Le said. “I thought I could manage it, but I couldn’t.” 

Le was living with his parents far from campus because he didn’t want to waste the money they made paying for the dorms, he said. He felt overwhelmed, but didn’t think his problems compared to what his parents took on, arriving as refugees with nothing.

“I really took that to heart, that I can handle this if they could handle it. But they never told me that they had a community behind them with their entire family, their extended family, so I felt really isolated,” Le said. “I thought I’m supposed to do this all on my own.”

Poverty, isolation, and the pressure to excel are problems some Asian American students face. But statistics — and the model minority myth that Asian American students get perfect grades and go to Ivy League universities — can hide those problems by treating Asian Americans as a monolith. A study conducted in Washington state found that students with Cambodian, Hmong and Laotian heritage, among others with Southeast Asian roots, earned bachelor’s degrees at a lower rate than the national average.

And higher education never happens.

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Sisavatdy says his life didn't fit the stereotype that Asian Americans breeze through school. “Because I’m more than just Asian American and others’ perception of what an Asian American is,” he said. “I’m Lao American. I’m a refugee. I’ve got eight siblings. I’ve got a mom that works night and day, hardly seeing her children.”

The model minority myth hides Jessica Do’s struggles too. She’s a freshman at the University of Washington, and the first in her family to go to college. The Vietnam War stopped her parents’ education because they arrived in the US with high school diplomas and didn’t have the time or the money to go to college in America, said Do, who came to the US when she was 9.

“It was a really, really tough transition, because I didn’t speak any English and then I was kind of thrown into the American school system, immediately,” she said.

Now in college, Do is interning with the Southeast Asian Education Coalition. “I think it’s my moral and civic duty to do what I can to give back and just try and make the system better for people who don’t have the same opportunities as myself,” she said.

Senior Sam Le said he knows how the mentoring can pay off, because that’s what has kept him in university. “I actually want to go to school now, like pursue something, and I have a community of friends to see that through and support me,” Le said.

Now he gives back the same way, helping other Asian American students and showing their campus, and the rest of the world, a more nuanced view of Asian American student life.