Worries that efforts in the U.S. to limit enrollment of Asian students in top universities may migrate to Canada
“My dad said if you don’t go into engineering, I won’t pay your tuition,” says Jason Yin, a Taiwanese software engineering student at Waterloo. “They are very traditional. They believe school is about work, studying, go home and studying some more.” Hard-studying Waterloo lends itself particularly to those goals. “We had a problem getting students out of their bedrooms,” says Nikki Best, a former residence don who sits on Waterloo’s student government, who explains they “didn’t want to get behind in their grades because of coming out to social events.”
That’s not to say Asian students form any sort of monolithic presence on Canadian campuses. “The mainland China group tends to stick together,” says Anthony Wong, 19, a Waterloo software engineering student. “We can talk to them,” says Jonathan Ing, also 19 and in Waterloo’s software engineering program, “but we don’t mingle.” Complains Waterloo student Simon Wang, a Chinese national who is frustrated by the segregation at Waterloo: “Why bother to come to Canada and pay five times as much to speak Chinese?” Meanwhile, Calgarian Joyce Chau identifies as “completely whitewashed,” a “banana”: “I look Asian but I’m white in all other respects.” Chau, a 19-year-old UBC business student, lived in residence her first year, where she met the majority of her (white) friends. “It’s harder to integrate into a group with Asians—you may or may not get introduced,” says Chau, who accepts the segregation as just “part of the university experience.”
Such balkanization is reflected in official student organizations: there is little Asian representation on student government, campus newspapers or college radio stations. At UBC, where the student body is roughly 40 per cent Asian, not one Asian sits on the student executive. Same goes for Waterloo. Asian students do, however, participate in organizations beyond the university mainstream, and long-standing cultural clubs function as a sort of ad hoc government. “After you graduate you won’t care about student government, but you’ll care about your club,” says Stan He, president of the Dragon Seed Connection, an on-campus Chinese club with over 300 members. (His business cards feature both dragon and robot motifs.) The Dragon Seed offers its members social functions, tutoring help, volunteer opportunities, poker and mah-jong tournaments, and special holiday parties—including at Halloween and Christmas. It even has an exclusive partnership with Solid Entertainment, a promotions and events-planning company that sponsors massive fundraising events and gives Dragon Seed exclusive selling rights on campus. He says that the dozen or so Asian clubs at UBC serve well over 4,000 students and cater to the whole spectrum of cultural identification—from “whitewashed” to “Honger,” a once-pejorative term now adopted by students with Hong Kong backgrounds. The Dragon Seed lies somewhere in between—“We’re the middle ground,” He says. “We have international students, but we all speak English.”
Or take the Chinese Varsity Club. With upwards of 500 members, it’s the largest student social club at UBC. The executives say they’ve captured a niche market: Chinese commuter students from the outlying Richmond, Burnaby and North Vancouver communities who hope to find a social network at the big school. “Students from high school already hear about us from older brothers and sisters,” says Peter Yang, the 21-year-old accounting student who is the club’s VP external. “You want to break out of the cycle of studying and being lonely,” says Brian Cheung, its president.
The impact of high admissions rates for Asian students has been an issue for years in the U.S., where high school guidance counsellors have come to accept that it’s just more difficult to sell their Asian applicants to elite colleges. In 2006, at its annual meeting, the National Association for College Admission Counseling explored the issue in an expert panel discussion called “Too Asian?” One panellist, Rachel Cederberg—an Asian-American then working as an admissions official at Colorado College—described fellow admissions officers complaining of “yet another Asian student who wants to major in math and science and who plays the violin.” A Boston Globe article early this year asked, “Do colleges redline Asian-Americans?” and concluded there’s likely an “Asian ceiling” at elite U.S. universities. After California passed Proposition 209 in 1996 forbidding affirmative action in the state’s public dealings, Asians soared to 40 per cent of the population at public universities, even though they make up just 13 per cent of state residents. And U.S. studies suggest Ivy League schools have taken the issue of Asian academic prowess so seriously that they’ve operated with secret quotas for decades to maintain their WASP credentials.
In his 2009 book No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, Princeton University sociologist Thomas Espenshade surveyed 10 elite U.S. universities and found that Asian applicants needed an extra 140 points on their SAT scores to be on equal footing with white applicants. Scandals over such unfair admissions practices have surfaced in recent years at Stanford, Harvard University, the University of California at Berkeley and elsewhere. Hsu, the Oregon physicist, draws a comparison between Asian-Americans and Jewish students who began arriving at the Ivy League in the first half of the last century. “You can find well-documented internal discussions at places like Harvard and Yale and Princeton about why we shouldn’t admit these people, they’re working so hard and they’re so obviously ambitious, but we want to keep our WASP pedigree here.”
To quell the influx of Jewish students, Ivy League schools abandoned their meritocratic admissions processes in favour of one that focused on the details of an applicant’s private life—questions about race, religion, even about the maiden name of an applicant’s mother. Schools also began looking at such intangibles as character, personality and leadership potential. Canadian universities, apart from highly competitive professional programs and faculties, don’t quiz applicants the same way, and rely entirely on transcripts. Likely that is a good thing. And yet, that meritocratic process results, especially in Canada’s elite university programs, in a concentration of Asian students.