Have we made it to the top?

Guest Post by Jessica Jinn, Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles

The author at her college graduation with her very pleased parents.

My parents cried when I did not get into UC Berkeley. My dad literally held the denial letter in his hands and cried. I cried, too. All my life I had been told to go to Berkeley and suddenly, I wasn't allowed. What was worse was that one of my best friends, a Latina, had gotten accepted. Despite the fact that California banned its universities to consider race in admissions at that time due to Proposition 209, life as an 18-year-old was horrible and we didn't know what else to do but blame affirmative action.

As affirmative action comes into the national spotlight again, one thought comes to mind: not this again. I knew Asian Americans would be pulled into this debate and depicted as affirmative action haters. With a story like mine, I would have been a prime suspect to oppose affirmative action. I am the Asian American that Edward Blum is hoping to take advantage of.

I grew up in one of the suburbs that make up the San Gabriel Valley. The students at the public schools I attended were majority Asian American. And thus, as the stereotype goes, we worked hard and we were competitive. In high school, many of us high-achievers would take a swath of AP and IB classes in our course load. (If that doesn't convince you of anything, I, alongside hundreds of others, took Calculus AB sophomore year, Calculus BC junior year, and then either AP Statistics or a higher-level math class to remain competitive.) We don't mess around.

Why did we do all of this? It was to get into a good college and fulfill our immigrant parents' dreams for their children. As with any middle- to upper-income community, my parents had the resources to spare to get us fit for college. I took art lessons, I was on the tennis team, debated with Model UN, and maintained a high GPA. I, and so many of my peers, was the definition of "model minority" on paper.

My best friend was not part of this ultra high achieving group of which I was a part. According to the model minority theory, I should have been accepted and she should not have been. But that is diluting the situation too much. She didn't live in the San Gabriel Valley. She wasn't given the luxury of private piano lessons, tennis lessons, or tutors. Despite this, she was beyond booksmart. She was clever, had a fine appreciation for music, and she could also out-debate anyone on most political issues.

Even though I don't know how college admissions works (does anyone, really?) I did not lose my seat to her. It's an opaque process and it's easy to point a finger at affirmative action. But she was chosen because she deserved it. It turned out to be an amazing opportunity for her; in fact, she is still at Berkeley finishing her PhD.

I know that it is the tendency for many first-generation Asian American parents, mine included, to want their children to attend a prestigious top-tier university. But what do we gain when we openly embrace the "model minority" label, if we go to these brand name schools? You are not defined by where you went to college. Strangers will not look at an Asian American and see a Stanford graduate; they'll more likely look at you and see a foreigner. Attending a prestigious school does not change the way we are seen by the majority of white Americans.

Certainly, by going to a top-tier university, you gain access to an exceptional education and exclusive alumni network, but, the college you attended is not an indicator of success. The truth is that no one cares where I went to school. Not going to Berkeley meant that I seized an opportunity to go to the east coast for school. I still received a high-quality education, studied abroad, but, most importantly, I experienced a truly diverse and eye-opening world that I would not have been able to access had I stayed in California. I am a success because of my experiences and because of my upbringing, not solely because of where I went to school.

If Asian parents truly cared about their children's success, then they should be pro-affirmative action. After all, affirmative action is still needed in the workplace, where Asian Americans still face barriers of entry into high-ranks of corporate America (i.e., "the bamboo ceiling"). Similarly in law, very few Asian Americans make it to partner ranks. While in academia there are plenty of Asian American professors, only 2.3% are presidents or chancellors of universities. Finally, fewer than 4% of Congress members are Asian American. What's the point of an elite education if we can't make it to the top?

It is easy to play the blame game during admissions season. But, students have to remember that the college they attend does not define their lives. Asian parents need to remember that their children's success is dependent upon more than just the school name. Despite the "model minority" label, we are not as privileged or well-represented as the white majority. As a minority group, we are constantly facing barriers to our success and we need affirmative action to help support our ascension to become leaders in business, law, education, and politics. A good way to start is by supporting affirmative action in higher education and standing in solidarity with other communities of color.

Jessica Jinn is Communications Manager at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA.

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