Asian Ethnicity Data Helps Students, Saves Lives

By OiYan Poon. Cross-Posted from AAPI Data.

There have been some recent, ill-informed protests by some vocal Chinese groups against the collection of Asian ethnicity data, and it has sparked a massive response by AAPI educators and community groups. The following is an account from an educator who has spent nearly two decades helping Asian American and Pacific Islander students, including Chinese American students.

Erica* was always academically successful in high school. Her Asian immigrant parents challenged and supported her scholastic development. But when she started college, she struggled to keep up with her classes, and realized she didn't want to study pre-med, the major her parents wanted. While other students seemed to be easily finding friends and getting involved in various campus activities, Erica didn't feel she could spend time outside of her books, for fear of failing her classes. Despite increasing her study time, Erica's growing social isolation and academic anxiety began eroding her sense of self-efficacy. Her sense of belonging in college quickly began to plummet, and she became depressed over disappointing her parents. At the end of her first term, the university notified Erica that she was being placed on academic probation. Instead of turning to campus resources and services to turn things around, Erica began to consider ending her life.

As a student affairs professional, I often worked with undergraduates like Erica. In fact, during my three years working on one campus, four Asian American undergraduates committed suicide. Around that same time period, fellow student affairs professional networks discussed what seemed to be a national outbreak of Asian American student suicides, with Elizabeth Shin, who set herself on fire in her dorm room at MIT being the most infamous case.

Most of my time was spent working with Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students through everyday social and academic challenges and development. I noticed that university offices, including counseling, academic support, and career development programs, rarely reached out to AAPI students, because the university reported retention and graduation data using the racial category "AAPI." It seemed that the university did not need to intentionally focus on adequately addressing the various educational support needs of this diverse population, because taken together as a racial group, AAPIs seemed like they were doing better than average in retention, graduation rates, and other measures of success.

From daily interactions with ethnically diverse Asian American students, I sensed a difference in how students from different ethnic backgrounds were experiencing university life. Sadly, I rarely encountered Pacific Islander students, because so many of them have experienced systemic barriers to accessing quality education.

Professional educators are responsible for identifying specific educational needs among all students, including AAPI students, and advocate for targeted programs and resources to address diverse needs. In university management, every programmatic change or development requires evidence-based justifications. Whenever I approached senior university officials about offering new targeted programs, I was confronted with "Where's the data to rationalize your proposal? The data we see for AAPIs says they're fine."

AAPIs are an extremely diverse population made up of varying ethnic groups with disparate economic, political, immigrant and refugee, Indigenous, educational, and social histories and experiences. These differences result in dissimilar educational needs by ethnicity, gender, and economic class.

Therefore, it is not surprising that nearly 500 Asian American and Pacific Islander educators have signed an open letter in support of ethnically disaggregated data. To meet professional obligations in serving all students and their diverse educational needs, especially at schools that need to be strategic in their programmatic investments, K-12 and higher education educators need data to know how best to broadly support student wellness and success among a diverse array of students.

Opponents of disaggregated data fear that disaggregated data can allow for quotas against Chinese American applicants to selective colleges. However, U.S. Supreme Court cases have deemed racial or ethnic point systems and quotas unconstitutional.

They also question why disaggregated data campaigns have focused on AAPI populations. Student and community advocacy movements for ethnically disaggregated educational data has so far only emerged among AAPI and Middle Eastern communities, although more groups may take up the issue.

And this fall marks ten years since AAPI undergraduates in the UC successfully campaigned to change the UC's system to collect ethnically disaggregated data on AAPI students. These students wanted to ensure that the UC had the evidence it needed to address their unique and varied educational needs and well-being. As students, they wanted to have access to adequate data to advocate for necessary educational resources, to ensure academic success, mental and physical well-being, and social development among their diverse AAPI peers.

Ethnically disaggregated data is essential to highlighting AAPI educational needs and adequately support AAPI students. With such data, educators and schools could:

  • Effectively apply for federal grants, such as the Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institution grant program.

  • Offer parent and family orientation and graduation programs and events in specific AAPI languages.

  • Provide financial aid, scholarship, and other campus information in specific AAPI languages.

  • Identify how diverse groups of AAPI students are utilizing or under-utilizing educational resources such as counseling and academic support services, to improve outreach and programs targeting various AAPI students.

  • Assess and improve curricular programs to target diverse AAPI students.

  • Identify whether and how various AAPI students may experience ethnic bias and hate incidents, and develop culturally-response support programs.

  • Develop culturally-relevant mentoring, leadership, and career development programs.

Ultimately, ethnically disaggregated data is a tool for educators to improve and increase culturally relevant support services targeting various AAPI students and educational needs.

Without data, educators are hindered from being effective at serving all students, and allows students like Erica to slip through educational cracks.

* "Erica" is a composite narrative of many students I worked with as a student affairs professional.

OiYan Poon is assistant professor of Higher Education Leadership at Colorado State University. Dr. Poon is also chair of the Research on the Education of Asian Pacific Americans (REAPA) special interest group of the American Education Research Association. Prior to earning a Ph.D. in Education with a graduate certificate in Asian American Studies at UCLA, she was Director of Asian Pacific American Student Affairs at George Mason University and Student Affairs Officer in Asian American Studies at the University of California Davis.

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