What’s Student Life Like?
As a top ten liberal arts college in the Northeast, Hamilton College’s quality of education has been advertised as both academically rigorous and intellectually enlightening while the small student population emphasizes the importance of a tight-knit community where students can be who they are. Students are aware that Hamilton College’s education has a prestigious reputation with an emphasis on developing a student’s writing and oral communication skills. With that, Hamilton College’s academics have a reputation of being extremely flexible with its open curriculum often being the center of emphasis during one’s four years on the hill. Students are encouraged to explore different classes and take courses in subjects they have general interest in for the sake of learning rather than fulfilling an academic requirement. Thus, learning is often motivated by intellectual curiosity. Even though students are in an academically rigorous environment, Hamilton provides students opportunities to interact with each other through various extra-curricular activities, like sports, clubs, and other events. With Hamilton being a fully residential campus, it is evident that one is surrounded by the same people most of the time. The types of people and environment one is surrounded by affects their experience at Hamilton College. We wanted to survey a sample of students that identify as Asian and/or Asian American, domestic and international, and ask them for their thoughts and experiences throughout their academic and social lives at Hamilton. Below are our findings from our final sample of 30 students.
Familial and Societal Pressure
Despite the encouragement from Hamilton College to “study what you love,” Asian identifying students have expressed feeling some kind of pressure to select a particular major by parents, friends, or society. Of the students we interviewed, many have expressed that their families worry about a perceived lack of job opportunities with selecting majors in the humanities and arts field. Particularly, some students reported family members forbidding them from pursuing concentrations like Creative Writing, Art History, Philosophy, or Music, just to name a few. The students we interviewed claimed that their parents placed a heavy emphasis on majoring in a STEM field, perceiving careers in medicine, engineering, and law as “stepladders to success” and a fast-tracked way to climbing the socioeconomic ladder.
In a study by Song and Glick (2004), the authors discussed how minority families and society tend to emphasize the importance of college major selections and prospects of socioeconomic mobility. They found that Asian women tend to select college majors with higher earning potentials than their white counterparts.1 However, some students reported that society played a larger role in influencing their decisions rather than family. For instance, the students we interviewed reported feeling a sense of stress from society to secure financial stability or to fulfill a stereotype of Asians entering the medical field. Student 32 reports hearing advice on picking “math while wanting to study government” from alumni. Student 34 remembers their relatives “looking down on [their] field of study” due to a perception of it being “not a high field,” while Student 25 feels the “pressure from extended relatives to do engineering, pre-med, or [a] solid path.” Another student recalls internalizing societal pressure. They say that the pressure to pick a “stable” field comes not from their parents but from themselves because they prioritize “stability” due to society prioritizing stability. To some, like Student 37, the pressure from society was unfavorable because they “didn’t want to [pursue a] STEM [field] because [they] didn’t want to conform to the stereotype.” Of the students we interviewed, a majority of students reported seeing Asian peers choose concentrations classified as STEM or Social Sciences.
On the Asian Pre-Med Stereotype
Asian students on campus feel frustrated when people around them say that they are pre-med due to their race. Student 33 stated how they feel angry at the “doctor stereotype. A lot of white people are doctors and there are not a lot of people of color in the medical field.” This is confirmed by AAMC data, from 2018, which states that 56.2% of all active physicians identify as white, while 17.1% identify as Asian.2 Additionally, in popular American medical dramas, the protagonists are white while there are minimal Asian characters. For example, in Grey’s Anatomy, the only Asian main characters were Dr. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) and Dr. Nico Kim (Alex Landi), in The Resident, the only Asian main character is Dr. Devon Pravesh (Manish Dayal). If this is the case, where does this stereotype of “Asians being doctors” come from? According to Asian Nation, the expectation of Asians being “hard working, education-hungry, [and a] social ladder-climbing group… put a relatively high percentage of APIAs on the path to one of the toughest and most respected fields — medicine.”3 The “doctor stereotype” is also a clear example of the phenomenon where people lump Asians as one entity without acknowledging the diversity that makes up the Asian community. According to AAMC data for the academic year 2018-19, of the total applicants to medical school that identify as Asian only, and sorted by country of origin, 32.4% identify as Indian, 15.4% as Chinese, and 9.7% as Korean.4Although over half of the applicants are from 3 Asian countries, the stereotype appears to encompass all Asians. This stereotype leaves various Asian students at Hamilton questioning their choice of being pre-med. For instance, Student 3 reported that they weren’t sure if they selected a pre-med path out of free will or picked it because of the subconscious thought that they need to be pre-med while aligning with their family and society’s standards. For various Asian pre-med students, this stereotype is counter-productive. For Student 37, they questioned being a pre-med student due to the fear of complying with the Asian stereotypes. They expressed feeling hesitant to pursue their passion because they worry about being too much like a stereotypical Asian.
Of the students we interviewed, a majority classified their concentrations under STEM and/or the Social Sciences. According to the students interviewees, the academic rigor is perceived to be more dependent on the professors and departments. For instance, Student 16, who classified their concentration as STEM, alleges that science and math heavy subjects emphasize rote memorization or contain professors who are determined to push the grade distribution lower. Student 3, while agreeing with opinions about Hamilton College being academically rigorous, feels that the curriculum is catered to people that prepared for the rigor in high school. They explained that when they took calculus, they were in a class of students that had already taken that particular level in high school and seemed to breeze through the class while they were newly introduced to the concepts of the class. They wished that professors were more understanding of different backgrounds in the class. However, the majority of the student interviewees found the academic rigor difficult but fair and manageable.
Not only do students report their racial identity playing a role in their selection of courses and concentrations, but also their classroom experience. Although most of the students we interviewed claimed that their race had not created a noticeable negative experience with professors, a few students reported a few occasions where these sour experiences stuck out or were difficult to forget. For instance, Student 20, as the only Asian identifying individual in the class, felt like their professor singled them out to represent or to become a spokesperson for their country despite not knowing specific details. They decided to deal with it on their own by self-studying information about their country in order to properly comment on it in class. Student 18 felt like their professor would favor white students, noticing that white students received higher final grades despite achieving significantly lower scores on exams. These instances of microaggressions or perceived feelings of discrimination are difficult to bring to the college. Student 18 reported approaching the Dean of Students Office about their troubles in the classroom. However, finding it difficult to address these issues as racially biased, Student 18 came to the Dean of Students Office, disguising the negative experience as an issue of academic struggles. Unlike Student 18’s subtle attempt to bring it to the college, these negative experiences left these students feeling out of place and not knowing how to properly handle it other than just moving on.
The Model Minority Myth labels Asians as “quiet and uncomplaining” which has influenced behaviors of other students towards Asian students.5 Student 25 recalls being cut off in class by other students and professors due to people around them assuming that they could speak over them because they were Asian. They wish they spoke up in class but they just quiet down a lot after incidents like that. While most students haven’t had any negative interactions with their professors due to their race, some students have. Student 16 had an interaction with a professor where the professor made a comment based on race. The student explicitly said that they don’t hate any professors but comments like those “stick out and [one] remembers them.” For Student 17, one of their classes had a “weird vibe,” feeling like most students in the class were privileged and didn’t understand the full scope of the material. They felt a disconnection between the class material and real-life experiences. The professor did “call out” students but they still felt uneasy. Another student expressed feeling like some professors are just not properly equipped to discuss certain topics and don’t know how to have conversations as it relates to race in class. The issue here, according to the student, was not that the professor made problematic comments but more of the professor not fully knowing how to respond to other students saying problematic things and when to interject. Furthermore, this is harmful to one’s learning environment.
It’s difficult to change culture at home, to escape the familial pressure of selecting one concentration for financial stability or selecting the other for passion.
Classroom experiences influence a student’s learning of the material and their eventual success in a field of study. However, when negative experiences from both peers and professors affect the learning environment, students of color can often find themselves struggling. The student interviewees, who reported experiencing microaggressions due to their Asian background by their professors, could have had a better experience if faculty were made aware of treading comments and behaviors on race carefully.
With only an extremely small Asian population it is inevitable for many students to have predominantly white friends, but it is not an active choice that many students think about. Both Student 18 and Student 3 specifically mentioned that outside of Hamilton College, they tend to have more Asian friends. This is likely attributed to both the environment in which they grew up in, and the tendency to befriend people with similar racial identities and experiences. Interviewees either have friends that are primarily people of color or have expressed some desire to expand their social circles in order to have more friends with similar backgrounds. Kao and Joyner explain that friends, especially close friends, tend to be from the same ethnic or racial group due to greater shared activities.6 Although racial boundaries are often broken for friendships, they tend to experience greater difficulties within the relationship compared to those of the same race.
Majority of students interviewed did not participate in Greek Life. Although their reasoning remains unknown, several students offhandedly mentioned that Greek Life felt very segregated and not for people of color. Although this may not be the intent of some students that do participate in Greek Life, a student interviewee claims to have left Greek Life after experiencing racist incidents. A significant reason likely stems from Hamilton’s small percentage of non-white students. However, this sentiment also has historical roots in the United States. Gillon, Beatty, and Salinas explain that Greek-letter social organizations were created at a time where white students had greater access to higher education due to both formal and informal racist practices and policies.7 Even after the number of students of color increased at colleges across the United States, restrictive policies targeting non-white students that wanted to participate in both general campus life and in historically white fraternities and sororities, which led many students to create social organizations specifically for students of color. For instance, the first Asian American fraternity, Rho-Psi, was established in 1916 at Cornell University.
Social and political stances also affect party culture on campus. Many noted that they did not have a stance on partying, as long as people were responsible and safe. Additionally, some chose not to participate in partying. Similar to the exclusionary culture of Greek Life, others felt that parties appear extremely segregated. For instance, Student 23 explained that parties seemed like an extension of Greek Life, excluding certain students of color. Parties and Greek Life were not built for people of color – they’re all bad in terms of racism.
Politically and socially, many students have noticed an unspoken divide between different groups of students at Hamilton. Those who did not notice such a divide in person have seen clashes between different political beliefs to be rampant and toxic on Jodel. Student 30 commented on how terrifying it was to notice the number of students that felt more empowered by the anonymity of comments expressed on Jodel. Despite not hearing such sentiments explicitly said to them or around them on campus, it’s still alarming to know it exists.
Moreover, many students have noted that the social atmosphere tends to be cliquey on campus while other students mentioned that people tend to be friends with those that are, or appear to be, like-minded politically. As a result, many students find that others, and sometimes themselves, broach political topics very cautiously or avoid it altogether in fear of potential social consequences. Student 34 expands upon this sentiment further in which they said, “I wish people were more politically active, especially in administration – a lot of time they say something to cover up something else – they just pander to people – the school can be more politically active.” Additionally, Student 24 reported that it was specifically difficult for them to discuss certain issues because they were Asian. They explained how they were told “Asians aren’t minorities” and how they couldn’t align themselves with one side or the other due to the black and white nature of activism on campus. Student 24 further elaborated how they were forced to keep silent, fearing that if they spoke out to anyone other than close friends about political issues, they may be shunned or considered racist.
Student 14 also reports having this struggle to defend themselves, wishing they could one day stand up for themselves to the extent they stood up for their friends. Many other students also noted the prevalence of performative activism and action by those on campus. One of the many examples mentioned was the response to the Atlanta shooting. A student said: “When something happens in the news, like the Atlanta shooting, I want people to actually talk about it and not forget about it after a week. I hate the idea that they just want to know what the drama is instead of actually understanding why I am affected the way I am by certain incidents.”
The student continued to explain how when they hear about certain instances, there is a focus on specific perpetrators; however, this problem is rampant across campus. “I hope Hamilton students can gain the courage to not be a bystander and start to understand what being a bystander means. Being able to call someone out shouldn’t affect the way people view you in a social setting. As a bystander, if you stand up for your friend, you shouldn’t be afraid of how the perpetrator feels, your only concern should be your friend.”
Additionally, Student 14 goes on to say, “For anyone who isn’t Asian American: if you’re going to follow an Asian trend or purchase an Asian product, you should support actual Asian brands and the Asian community instead of taking advantage of it for social gain and not considering who made or produced the product.” With the fast turn over of trends on social media, it is easy to ignore or forget the origin of the trend, product, or cultural reference.
“Caucasian professors should take the time to understand how they present themselves and teach classes with minority students in class.” Following the Atlanta spa shooting, a student found that some of their professors were not as accommodating to Asian students or acknowledged the occurrence of the murders.
Another student said, “It’s so hard to grow up in a predominantly white town and then having to heal myself mentally. People get lazy when they say that they will take steps to change their humor or not be racist, but they go right back to their old habits when they’re around people who don’t care about racist jokes, etc.” Such instances were especially shocking for students who grew up in a more diverse community and then arrived at Hamilton College.
In addition to racial and political divides affecting students and their social spheres, socioeconomic factors also play a role in the feelings of exclusion. Student 14 explains how many social affiliations seem to be based on socioeconomic class. When conversing amongst peers, people often bond over shared experiences which can be isolating to those who can’t relate. They continued to describe that “If you’re not white, then you have to assimilate into their experiences and act like you’ve lived similar lives as them.”
Aside from academics and social life, students fill up their schedules with extracurricular activities such as sports and clubs. Out of the 31 student interviewees, 7 reported participating in athletics, while the remaining 24 do not. Students interviewees mentioned extracurricular activities and clubs ranging from the Asian Student Union (ASU) to different literary publications, music clubs, club, and intramural sports, Greek societies, community service clubs, and many more. Additionally, many reported being involved in campus jobs and opportunity programs.
The Asian Student Union (ASU) was another topic of interest. 19 students reported that they formerly or currently participate in ASU events. The remaining student interviewees revealed that they had not attended any events. During the 2020-2021 academic year, ASU held fewer events and were not as active due to the pandemic. We were also curious about students’ opinions on ASU not being a part of the Days-Massolo Center — a space for students and community members to educate and collaborate with one another on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. In addition, the DMC facilitates events focussing on culture and social issues. Student cultural organizations that fall under the DMC include: Black Latinx Student Union, Center for Intersectional Feminism, Feminists of Color Collective, Gender and Sexuality Student Unions, La Vanguardia, and Voices of Color Lecture Series.
Many of the student interviewees were not aware that the Asian Student Union was not formally affiliated with the Days-Massolo Center. Therefore, students did not have much of an opinion on the topic and question. Although, those who did have a stronger opinion on the issue believed that the Asian Student Union’s absence solidifies the model minority myth or the belief that the Asian community is not marginalized whatsoever. Despite these mixed feelings, the Asian Student Union’s absence from the Days-Massolo Center brought on more confusion. To further understand the relationship of ASU with the DMC, we met with a representative from the DMC and had a conversation with them. The findings of this conversation can be found in the Offices section.
1. Chunyan Song, and Jennifer E. Glick. “College Attendance and Choice of College Majors Among Asian-American Students.” Social Science Quarterly 85, no. 5 (2004): 1417. Accessed July 24, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42956003.
2. “Figure 18. Percentage of All Active Physicians by Race/Ethnicity, 2018,” AAMC, accessed July 25, 2021, https://www.aamc.org/data-reports/workforce/interactive-data/figure-18-percentage-all-active-physicians-race/ethnicity-2018.
3. Ji Hyun Lim, “Doctors – The APA Dream Profession,” Asian Nation, accessed July 25, 2021, http://www.asian-nation.org/doctors.shtml.
4. “Figure 3. Percentage of Asian (Alone) Applicants to U.S. Medical Schools by Asian Subgroups, Academic Year 2018-2019,” AAMC, accessed July 25, 2021, https://www.aamc.org/data-reports/workforce/interactive-data/figure-3-percentage-asian-alone-applicants-us-medical-schools-asian-subgroups-academic-year-2018.
5. Nicholas Daniel Hartlep. Killing the Model Minority Stereotype: Asian American Counterstories and Complicity. Charlotte NC: Information Age Publishing, 2015. 5. Accessed July 24, 2021. https://search-ebscohost-com.ez.hamilton.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=999831&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
6. Grace Kao, and Kara Joyner. “Do Race and Ethnicity Matter among Friends? Activities among Interracial, Interethnic, and Intraethnic Adolescent Friends.” The Sociological Quarterly 45, no. 3 (2004): 557-73. Accessed July 25, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4120863.
7. Kathleen E. Gillon, Cameron C. Beatty, and Cristobal Salinas, “Race and Racism in Fraternity and Sorority Life: A Historical Overview,” Wiley Online Library (John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, March 1, 2019), https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ss.20289.
“Figure 3. Percentage of Asian (Alone) Applicants to U.S. Medical Schools by Asian Subgroups, Academic Year 2018-2019,” AAMC, accessed July 25, 2021, https://www.aamc.org/data-reports/workforce/interactive-data/figure-3-percentage-asian-alone-applicants-us-medical-schools-asian-subgroups-academic-year-2018.
“Figure 18. Percentage of All Active Physicians by Race/Ethnicity, 2018,” AAMC, accessed July 25, 2021, https://www.aamc.org/data-reports/workforce/interactive-data/figure-18-percentage-all-active-physicians-race/ethnicity-2018.
Gillon, Kathleen, Cameron C. Beatty, and Cristobal Salinas, “Race and Racism in Fraternity and Sorority Life: A Historical Overview,” Wiley Online Library (John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, March 1, 2019), https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ss.20289.
Hartlep, Nicholas Daniel. Killing the Model Minority Stereotype: Asian American Counterstories and Complicity. Charlotte NC: Information Age Publishing, 2015. 5. Accessed July 24, 2021. https://search-ebscohost-com.ez.hamilton.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=999831&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Ji Hyun Lim, “Doctors – The APA Dream Profession,” Asian Nation, accessed July 25, 2021, http://www.asian-nation.org/doctors.shtml.
Kao, Grace, and Kara Joyner. “Do Race and Ethnicity Matter among Friends? Activities among Interracial, Interethnic, and Intraethnic Adolescent Friends.” The Sociological Quarterly 45, no. 3 (2004): 557-73. Accessed July 25, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4120863.
Song, Chunyan, and Jennifer E. Glick. “College Attendance and Choice of College Majors Among Asian-American Students.” Social Science Quarterly 85, no. 5 (2004): 1417. Accessed July 24, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42956003.