As the only Asian-American woman in one of her classes, junior Elizabeth Kim said she sometimes feels like the professor makes an effort to point her out when she doesn’t contribute answers.
“Sitting in that astronomy class, every day it felt like I was being harassed,” Kim said. “My ethnicity, which has no relevance to the course — it just made me feel really distracted, really angry throughout every since class. I couldn’t even pay attention to what we were even talking about.”
The model minority myth — the idea that Asian-Americans are more academically, economically and socially successful than any other racial minority group — affects the Asian-American Pacific Islander community more than people think, Kim said.
“Because of things like the model minority narrative and the mental health stigma throughout the community, Asian-Americans are not seeking the services that they need or are not even aware that there are any resources out there for them,” said Kim, a government and politics major.
To help support the University of Maryland’s AAPI community, which currently includes 5,358 undergraduate and graduate students, the Asian American Student Union created the Asian American Pacific Islander Involvement and Advocacy coordinator position in 2002. It followed a similar 1997 effort when the organization established a graduate coordinator for AAPI students on the campus, said Kristina Mascarenas, the newest coordinator.
“This position is so crucial and so important because I would not be here if it were not for student organizers, activists and interested and engaged students,” said Mascarenas, who assumed the position last month as a full-time staff member.
Kim said she feels that AAPI students are often hesitant to reach out for help in their classes and are not given proper guidance from teachers in terms of academic resources because of “the misconception that we’re really smart and overachieving.”
“It’s the way that professors treat Asian-American students,” she said. “I think there really is a difference in the way that professors see a group of students as more capable of achieving success … they are going to treat those students differently and are going to give them a different sort of guidance compared to other students.”
Junior Amanpreet Kaur said she could not imagine how she would have been able to attend school here if she had not found out about the coordinator position.
“As a sophomore during my first semester, I felt very disengaged and unsure about what I wanted to do with my time here,” said Kaur, a public policy major. “During this time, I was taking a class where [Mascarenas] was one of the co-instructors. She encouraged me to continue on with my schoolwork while guiding me into getting more involved in extra-curricular activities on campus. She, as well as the other instructor, offered me an internship in the MICA office which has led to several semesters of involvement in the AAPI community.”
Feeling overwhelmed this academic year with responsibilities such as being the Asian American Student Union president, Kaur said Mascarenas has provided assistance to help her make it through the semester.
“[Mascarenas] spent several hours sitting down and helping me plan out board meeting agendas, and also led a board retreat for the members to learn about important skills such as event planning, facilitating conversations, et cetera,” she said.
Another issue the AAPI community faces is mental health access, as it is considered taboo in the culture. As a result, many students tend to dismiss, deny or neglect their symptoms, Mascarenas said.
“Many students have shared with me that when they shared with their parents that they were having symptoms of depression or anxiety, a common response from their parents was just, ‘Try harder to be happy,'” Mascarenas said. “It is almost as if there was no validation, understanding or even awareness of these real impacts of mental health concerns.”
The American Psychological Association reported that in 2007, suicide was the eighth leading cause of death for Asian-Americans nationally for all age groups, whereas it was the 11th-leading cause of death for all racial groups combined, according to APA’s website.
Asian-Americans aged 20-24 had the highest suicide rate compared to other racial groups, with 12.44 per 100,000 people dying by suicide in 2007. College students who were Asian-American also reported having higher rates of suicidal thoughts than white college students, though there is no national data about their rate of suicide deaths, the website read.
Mascarenas has been providing continuous emotional support for those who need it, Kim said.
“Whenever I need to talk to her, I can just shoot her an email and she would respond saying that we could walk into her office to just talk,” she said. ” It’s just really nice to know that someone from the administration is by our side and there for us to work out the kinks of this bureaucratic institution.”
Kevin Kim, president of the Korean Student Association, said thanks to the help of former AAPI coordinator Jude Paul Dizon, who left this October, he has been able to cultivate relationships with some of the 27 AAPI-focused groups on the campus, including the Chinese Student Association.
Kevin Kim added he is confident that Mascarenas will create more opportunities for the AAPI organizations to get to know each other.
“Not only me, but a lot of the organization leaders feel that we need to have that unity in the Asian community,” he said. “If [the AAPI coordinator] wasn’t here, I think it would have been a lot more difficult to have more joint collaboration events, to get to know each other.”
In the near future, Mascarenas said she hopes to foster skill building in areas such as social justice education, leadership development and organizing students for the Asian American Student Union, as well as creating a student group that fosters a space of community and understanding for Pacific Islander students, who have ancestry from or who are from countries such as Fiji, Nauru, Samoa, Palau and the Marshall Islands.
“[Pacific Islanders] have become silenced or invisible within the larger Asian community because they are so much smaller and they might not have as large as representation,” she said.
Senior Kalyn Cai said she is looking forward to seeing what Mascarenas has in store as coordinator.
“As a graduating senior, it’s really nice to know that in MICA, the community and students are in such good hands,” said Cai, an American studies major. “She is so uniquely capable and caring for everyone. She is the kind of person who wants to make sure that you are fully supported and nurtured.”