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Become a doctor or an engineer: The problem with Asian American students limiting their career aspirations

The Local Control Funding Formula, passed in 2013, provides extra money to California school districts and also requires that they listen to parents, teachers and community members as they decide how to spend it. This story is the third in a series where Alhambra Source Reporter Corps participants explore how they would spend the funding. If you would like to learn more, there will be an Alhambra Unified School District board meeting on June 17.

It felt more like an initiation to a secret society than a meeting with friends. At Honey Badger Café in Alhambra, a group of three ethnic Chinese high school students founded our own academic club. In the Brotherhood of Social Sciences—B.O.S.S., we call it—we are all equals in our passion for social science inquiry.

BOSS members at an Asian American journalists event. We felt like rebels in a school district where top students, who were mostly Asian, opted to follow the stereoytype and study the subjects that would result in a big paycheck and parental bragging rights.  Of the top 10 students in my graduating class from Mark Keppel High School last year, all Asian, eight of them are pursuing college degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. The other two students are in pre-law programs. None are studying social science disciplines—economics, psychology, and sociology, to name a few. This result is poised to replicate itself for this year’s graduating class.

The trend toward Asian students choosing STEM careers is national in scope. In a 2011 study published by Georgetown University using data from the US Census’ 2009 American Community Survey, “What’s it Worth?,” the study found that of the top 10 undergraduate degrees for Asian Americans in 2009, nine were in STEM fields. Foreign language was the only exception, coming in at number five.

I wanted to know why Asians tend to choose STEM over the social sciences. Is it parents? Or perhaps the schools? A non-scientific survey I conducted of 70 current and former students from AUSD and neighboring districts asked respondents about their potential or current field of study, what influenced their choices, and gave room for students to weigh in on the question. I found that the salary and stability attributed to STEM careers is a top priority for Asian parents. One Asian graduate wrote, “I find that parents do put a lot of pressure on their children to obtain a job that makes more money.” This opinion was shared by a majority of respondents, many of whom are children of immigrants, and is supported by research by University of Pennsylvania sociologist Grace Kao in the journal Sociology of Education, which found that “foreign-born parents [of all ethnic groups] had significantly higher educational aspirations for their children than did native-born parents.”

The author, Arthur Wang. | Photo by Albert LuI am convinced that this can cause high levels of dissatisfaction. Despite the high numbers of Asians entering STEM fields, there is also a considerable percentage of them who leave, suggesting that many were unsatisfied with their field of study. A national report by STEMConnector found that 33 percent of Asian students opt to study in STEM fields when entering college. But a six-year longitudinal study conducted between 2003 and 2009 by the National Center for Education Statistics found that despite being better prepared in math than other ethnic groups, almost 1 out of 4 Asian four-year college students who entered college with a STEM degree in mind changed their majors to a non-STEM field.

These numbers suggest that Asian students may tend to choose a STEM field as their “default” upon entering college. Patrice Flores, my English teacher at Mark Keppel High School during junior year, said that students initially "choose whatever major their parents think is best for them," but many "change majors once they go to college, usually during sophomore year."

Bill Nguyen, a first-generation college student, immigrant, and sophomore at Columbia University, is a STEM leaver. As a high school student, he said “the model minority myth unconsciously infiltrated my ambitions … I always said that I wanted to become a doctor until my junior year,” he said. Because he lived in the Silicon Valley, he was constantly encouraged to pursue a career there and entered college as a computer science major.

The author, leading a discussion on the topic at a forum in Alhambra.“Through my involvement with groups like the Quest Scholars Network, a safe space for socioeconomically disadvantaged students, and the Asian American Alliance, an advocate for Asian and Pacific Islander Americans on campus and beyond, I switched over to math and human rights,” Nguyen said. He later dropped math as well, adding that “while I was studying for an abstract algebra midterm [last fall], I realized that I couldn’t follow through with my plans.”

Social scientists have long wrestled with why Asians, notably East Asians, tend to study in STEM fields, with early studies dating back to the 1980s. Writing in the journal Race and Social Problems, sociology professors Jennifer Lee of UC Irvine and Min Zhou of UCLA say the root of this trend is a “narrow success frame” by Chinese and other Asian immigrant parents. “Most Chinese immigrant parents … define success as getting straight A’s … and becoming a doctor, lawyer, pharmacist, or engineer,” Lee wrote in the Guardian.

My survey also found that Asian students often choose certain majors or careers over others because of these family values and parental pressures, sometimes putting aside their own preferences out of respect to their parents. Compared to other ethnic groups, “Asian youth felt a greater obligation to their immigrant parents and believed that it was their responsibility to the family to do well in school,” researchers Barbara Schneider and Yongsook Lee found in a 1990 study on Asian achievement for Anthropology & Education Quarterly.

Mark Keppel graduationWhile Asian students may be pressured to study STEM by their parents, the course options at Alhambra high schools plays a role as well. The lack of new social science curricula during the last decade does little to encourage these students to opt out of the STEM-doctor-lawyer orthodoxy. Elective social science courses previously offered at Alhambra High School, such as "Intro to Social Science,” “Age of Chivalry,” and “Classical Age,” were cut over a decade ago, said retired teachers Sherri Bottger and Joe Petralia in an Alhambra Source interview.

Classes like these did not return in years following because the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001 required schools to emphasize assessments in English language arts and math, subsequently reducing instructional time for social sciences, humanities, and the arts, according to Brad Walsh, AUSD’s Director of Secondary Education. Course catalogs in three AUSD high schools from 2006 and 2013 reveal few significant changes or additions to the number of social science classes offered.

According to Walsh, the elective schedule is built in part on student requests and new classes require a qualified, credentialed teacher who is willing to create a course that will be subject to a top-to-bottom district review. While NCLB hurt the social sciences, district budget cuts did not specifically target any one subject, he noted.

This could change. With Governor Brown's Local Control Funding Formula, the district will be receiving additional funding for low-income students, foster youth, and English-Language learners. Walsh was optimistic LCFF would enable Alhambra schools to provide more access to social science classes.

Since social science coursework requires critical thinking central to the new Common Core State Standards, and can bolster skills in language arts and even mathematics, “Social science can lead the school,” Walsh said.

I could only imagine how my interest toward the social sciences would have developed earlier if I first acquainted myself with sociology in a high school classroom setting. LCFF is an opportunity for the district to fund more social science electives that would help students see their options. This is especially important for Asian students, who may be missing the opportunity to pursue fields they would enjoy and could contribute to. Many immigrant parents lack the exposure and knowledge of the social sciences—so it’s time that schools opened up more windows for students.

This story was produced by USC Annenberg's Reporter Corps, which trains young adults from diverse and under-represented neighborhoods to report on their own communities, in partnership with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University. Alhambra Source, which is also affiliated with USC, hosted the project.

The Alhambra Source encourages comment on our stories. However, we do not vet comments for accuracy or endorse links to posts in the comment section. The thoughts and opinions expressed belong solely to the author of the comment.

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4 thoughts on “Become a doctor or an engineer: The problem with Asian American students limiting their career aspirations”

  1. I find our country's emphasis on STEM fields over social sciences and humanities fields really disturbing.  What's the point of technological/scientific innovation if you don't know how to apply it?  This is why General Education requirements exist, but even universities like Stanford are cutting back on social sciences and humanities GEs.  I understand the need for money, but let's not forget that innovation and progress rely on a wide array of knowledge.  Also I think it's really telling that so many people, including our president, are actively pushing for more STEM education (read: profit-producing) but not SSH + Fine Arts educaton.

    Here's a good comment on HuffPost in response to the idea that STEM professionals are the main producers of “marketable goods”: 

  2. It’s all just pros and cons.

    Sad but successful. Happy but lower-class.

    If everyone could accurately assess their situation we’d all be better off – but you know, I don’t know if that’s gonna happen.


  3. Keep doing what you’re doing. What it comes down to the job market, it’s about being smart and leveraging your talents. No degree is a guarantee – for a great job or for a setback and moving back to your parent’s house.

    As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed many people who’ve had initial success “model minority” style or picked their career choices based on parental wishes end up despondent and unhappy and stalled in their, even with great jobs. The weight of not having chosen their own profession and struggled could not be made up by income. It’s a new economy and the reality is that whole doctor, lawyer, even software engineer professional track is no longer a guarantee.

    It’s unfortunate, but many immigrant parents have high but specific aspirations for their childs’ careers, believing that a straight but narrow path will lead to success and security. However, that’s just not true anymore in a 21st century economy (ask the lawyers). The upside is, plenty of new opportunities for people to make their own way. The value of education should be about building you up as someone who can think and hone your talents for whatever profession you choose and measure your expectations about the lifestyle you want.

  4. Considering the cost of college, getting a degree in “social Sciences” could be a road back to one’s parents house saddled with debt and no job.