The different faces of race

Approximately 24 percent of Carnegie Mellon’s undergraduate student population identifies itself as Asian-American or Pacific Islander, according to recent statistics from Carnegie Mellon’s department of Institutional Research & Analysis. The new data marks a 0.7 percent increase in this figure since fall 2003. In comparison, all other minorities combined make up less than 11 percent.

Carnegie Mellon is not the only school with a high Asian student population. Other top universities across the U.S. share a similar number of Asian students. At the University of California, Berkeley, 46 percent of first-year students are Asian, according to a January 7 article in The New York Times. MIT is at 27 percent, and Stanford is at 24 percent.

The fact that Carnegie Mellon is a science and engineering-oriented school may account for the reason why so many Asian and Asian-American students choose to enroll. Statistics show that Asian-American students tend to be more proficient in mathematics than peers of other ethnic groups. For example, 43 percent of Asian-American students took calculus in high school compared to 27 percent of white students, according to a 2004 College Board press release.

Also, the reason that many Asian students are qualified to attend Carnegie Mellon may have to do with the importance that the Asian culture places on education.

“If you did grow up in an Asian family, the Asian culture cultivates an environment of competition and constant improvement of yourself,” said Maryanne Tomazic, a first-year student studying Chinese at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa. “Often, Asian students have really high standards, and stereotypes develop because of that.”

The presence of Asian and Asian-American students on campus is hard to ignore. Numerous Asian-interest student organizations are active on campus, including the Asian Student Association (ASA) and Big Straw, Carnegie Mellon’s Asian-American interests magazine that is published annually. In addition, there are many ethnicity-specific student organizations, ranging from Awareness of Roots in Chinese Culture (ARCC) to the Vietnamese Student Association (VSA), as well as Asian-specific Greek organizations on campus. The first, the fraternity Pi Delta Psi, was founded in December 2001.

Asian-interest student organization leaders feel that it is important to cater to the Asian-American population and bridge the gap between Asians and Asian-Americans, particularly Asian-Americans who have adapted to American culture but are the product of more traditional Asian parents.

“There is a definite need, because most of us belong to the generation that’s standing between cultures,” said Margaret Szeto, a senior in design and human-computer interaction who is the design and production manager for Big Straw. “And for the sake of each individual and for the Asian-American community on campus, having a forum like Big Straw can fill in a lot of gaps, bridge people together, and empower future leaders.”

Asian-interest student organizations at Carnegie Mellon welcome membership from students of any origin; several boast officers who are non-Asian.

“Numerous officers have been non-Asian or Caucasian,” said Lu Zhang, a junior in business administration and former president of ASA. “We are always trying to encourage students that are not Asian to join us.”

In this sense, Carnegie Mellon is at the forefront of the nationwide effort among universities to integrate students of different ethnicities. Students at other colleges have been barred from joining Asian student organizations. Some groups restrict membership to specific ethnic groups; for example, Chinese, Taiwanese, or Korean, according to Tomazic.

Tomazic feels that the only reason why restriction may be sometimes appropriate is that non-Asian students may lack understanding of Asian culture.

“I do recognize that a lot of the issues that [Asian student organizations] talk about are very sensitive issues that could be misconstrued if you yourself haven’t been immersed in the culture,” Tomazic said. “For example, someone who’s not Chinese or Asian may not understand how you feel when someone calls you a chink.”

At Carnegie Mellon, Asian student groups seem to have the opposite problem. Some groups that are interested in attracting members of various races have experienced limited success diversifying their memberships.

“It’s a good thing that we do have all these different Asian groups, and it’s definitely important to have an awareness of each individual culture,” said Paul Nguyen, a junior in business administration and the head of VSA. “At the same time, it sometimes only attracts members of that group.”
The divisions deter students of other races as well as other Asian students of different countries of origin.

“For example, when I say we really try to open VSA to everybody … [some students say], ‘Oh well, I’m not Vietnamese, so I can’t be in VSA.’ So I’m sure it’s the same way about KSA. I can definitely understand it’s a natural reaction,” Nguyen said.

In fact, many Asian students at Carnegie Mellon claim they have only been discriminated against by students of other Asian ethnic divisions.

“Within Asian groups, there are divisions,” Zhang said. “I’ve suffered discrimination from within Asian groups, but not from non-Asian groups.”

However, the belief that Asian students tend to befriend only other Asian students may be overly stereotypical.
Asian students such as Zhang report no problems befriending students that are not familiar with Asian culture. “They didn’t know any Asian people before they met me,” Zhang said. “But now that we’ve gotten to know each other, we’re like brothers.”

“Only some Asian students choose to associate with only other Asians. It’s half and half,” Nguyen said. “Generally, I would say they only hang out with Asians or they hang out with everyone else, and not necessarily with the Asian-Asians.”

Students are divided over who is to blame for such self-segregation.

“Whether or not it’s the Asian student’s fault… that’s arguable,” Zhang said. “It’s overgeneralizing, but stereotypes come from somewhere. Yeah, there may be Asian students that only associate with Asian students, but there may also be Caucasian students that only associate with Caucasian students.”

The administration has created several campus initiatives to promote diversity on campus, such as the Multicultural Initiatives division of Student Affairs, which includes the Multicultural Presidents Council, a group that brings together leaders of different student organizations to promote diversity.

“I’m part of the Multicultural Presidents Council,” said Nguyen. “That’s something we’re working on — bringing diversity to everybody. It shouldn’t be just an Asian thing. In our particular case, there’s not that many Vietnamese. So we definitely reach out to everybody and anybody.”

In addition, there is the Diversity Advisory Council, chaired by Carnegie Mellon President Jared Cohon. The council’s role is to “assess the status of diversity at Carnegie Mellon [and] study the issues and challenges associated with increasing diversity at the university,” according to its website.

Some Asian students reported that being in an environment with many other Asian students has changed their perspective, which many see as a potential benefit to attending a school with such a substantial Asian population like Carnegie Mellon.

“It definitely had an influence on me. I actually came in rather white-washed. I came from an area with not many Asians,” said Nguyen. “Coming here was definitely a new experience for me. It gave me a different perspective now that I wasn’t entirely the minority anymore.”

“White-washed” is a term used by some Asians to describe a person of a different ethnicity that has disregarded their culture of origin in favor of adopting Western culture.

There is a natural tendency among people to stick with members of one’s own group, whether the group is of race, religion, major, or other interests, Vice President of Enrollment William Elliott noted.

“Athletes have the tendency to hang together also,” he said. “African-American kids do the same thing. It’s natural.”

“But on the other hand,” Elliott continued, “if we go beyond what’s natural and use the opportunity to learn from one another, it’s fascinating what you can learn if you just ask a lot of questions.”