Applying to college is a stressful process, to say the least. Applying to graduate school — perhaps even more so. As students, we do all that we can to make sure we have the most appealing application — the GPA, the test scores, the extracurriculars and the work experience. And just when we think we’ve mastered the application process, colleges throw out another curveball.
Lately it seems to be race.
Over break I saw an article in The New York Times claiming that Asians may be “too smart for their own good.” Those who indicate Asian as their ethnicity on their applications may be at a disadvantage when it comes to Ivy League schools. Studies show that America’s college-age Asian population doubled between 1992 and 2011, but the percentage of Asian Americans enrolled at Harvard dropped by 50 percent simultaneously. In 1992, the Justice Department halted an investigation accusing Harvard of discriminating against Asians in the application process.
During this time, Asians have continued to make up 40 to 70 percent of the student population at top public high schools. And a 2009 study of about 9,000 students applying to highly selective universities showed that white students were about three times as likely to be admitted as Asians with the same statistics.
This is a problem on many levels. For one, the United States is largely a meritocracy. The quintessential American motto is that if you work hard enough, you will be rewarded. If students are working equally as hard, it only logically follows that they should be judged on the merit of their applications.
But there’s a bigger issue here. As a society, we have come to associate race with academic ability and intellect. Race isn’t a factor that inherently makes someone smarter or more capable than another. Yes, race may determine social, economic, and cultural factors that can impact ability and achievement. But in that case it is those factors at play, not race.
Which brings me to my next point — being Asian doesn’t make you smart. We’ve all done it. We’ve all seen someone that is Asian and classified them as a “genius.” We’ve walked into libraries full of Asians and shook our heads at how robotically they solve math and physics problems. We’ve groaned at the Asian kid in our classes that seems to know every answer and always throws off the curve. Even I have, and I identify myself as Asian.
But this is a huge misconception — one that contributes to the stereotyping and discrimination that we see. Asians aren’t some natural super-species. The fact that they are Asian isn’t what makes them successful. They don’t top academic records because of some mysterious genetic advantage that comes with being from India or China. It’s a horrific oversimplification of the issue and an insult to the hard work these individuals put in.
Statistics may show that Asians tend to do well academically — that’s true. But race is hardly the main factor contributing to their success. Many second-generation Asians’ parents came from meager means, working against odds to get a secondary or professional education and the necessary paperwork to immigrate to this country. Those who made it were already the exception, and they continued to embody a strong work ethic once they arrived in the United States.
My dad grew up in a remote village in India, living with barely enough to get by day to day. I’m sure he never in his wildest dreams imagined being able to come to America. It was his drive and hard work that allowed him to come here and succeed. And coming from that background, it’s natural that he expects the same from me.
That’s the secret to Asians’ success. They learned early on that no matter what the challenge, they needed to give 110 percent of their effort. And that’s the drive and ambition they impart to their kids.
We make this mistake at both ends of the academic spectrum — when dealing with those who are underrepresented as well as overrepresented. Being black or Hispanic doesn’t make you stupid. Yes, it might make you less likely to be in a social or economic setting that allows you to go to and succeed in college. It might also mean growing up in a family environment that places less emphasis on higher education. But race itself doesn’t define ability. There are plenty of white people and even Asian Americans who grow up in poor socioeconomic conditions and end up not going to college or not excelling academically — we just rarely hear about them.
There’s a huge psychological problem with attributing success, or lack thereof, to race. For the most part, race is an aspect of one’s identity that can’t be changed. I can’t wake up one day and decide I don’t want to be Indian. But achievement and success can be changed. They can be cultivated, no matter what race someone belongs to. Race is often seen as an easy way for us to classify things, but this simplification often ignores the underlying complexities that accompany any situation or circumstance.
Harsha Nahata can be reached at email@example.com