New Mainstream : Asians Make Presence Felt in Universities

The Washington Post

With the usual salad of Jell-O and cottage cheese, the student dining halls now serve stir-fried beef, egg rolls, sesame chicken and steamed rice. In some sections of the electrical engineering department, the instructor may lapse into Chinese without anyone losing the thread.

In this huge university, still a symbol of what is best about American public education, the transformation has come too quickly for the full impact to be evident, but Berkeley and other campuses of the University of California have become key training grounds for a rapidly growing Asian-American elite.

This month, in the aftermath of a bitter controversy over alleged discrimination against applicants of Asian descent, Berkeley announced that it again had admitted more of them than any other major American university--at least 27% of the freshman class. For the first time at Berkeley, and apparently at any American campus of similar size and repute, non-Latino whites compose less than half the freshman class--47.9%.


Second-Largest Campus Group

Ethnic Asians, principally students whose families immigrated from China, the Philippines, Korea, Japan and Vietnam, are the second-largest ethnic group at the largest university system in the West. (The term “ethnic Asian” includes all U.S. residents of Asian descent.)

They appear destined to populate the upper levels of American science, business, government and education in the next century in proportions far beyond previous expectations or their percentage of the population.

Statistics have become commonplace on social and academic achievements of Asian-Americans, who on the average out-perform all other ethnic groups in mathematics tests, high school graduation rates and family income. But the changed atmosphere at this hilly campus, where teriyaki chicken vendors have replaced anti-war protesters on Telegraph Avenue, shows that the remarkable increase in their numbers has raised the visibility of their individual achievements.

Some departments report that students are working harder, some dormitories are quieter, admissions policies are being closely examined, recreational opportunities have expanded and some English instructors are grinding their teeth, all as the result of this massive influx of students whose families have crossed the Pacific in the last 20 years.

Creating a New Society

For years, American scholars and social critics have written about difficulties encountered by new Asian and Latino immigrants in absorbing U.S. culture and joining the American mainstream. But the scene at Berkeley, and at several other crucial junctions of American life, suggests that they actually are changing America, in effect creating a new mainstream.

Many educators and Asian-American leaders here believe that the transformation is likely to provide a subtle but severe test of lingering racism among white, black and Latino Americans. Despite one’s achievements and, in some cases, generations of American roots, “You’re really not entirely part of America because of your appearance,” said laser researcher and amateur historian Munson A. Kwok, a Chinese-American.


From the 1920s until immigration laws were eased in 1965, most ethnic Asian students here were U.S.-born, said Sucheng Chan, a provost at the university’s Santa Cruz campus who studied them as a faculty member at Berkeley. Her survey showed that by 1980, 47% of these students at Berkeley were foreign-born. She now puts the figure at about 55%.

Almost One-Fourth of Student Body

Of Berkeley’s 22,321 undergraduates, 24.7% are ethnic Asian, not including 300 foreign-exchange students from Asian nations. Several other campuses have major ethnic Asian contingents, including Irvine (20.4% of undergraduates and 34% of incoming freshmen) and UCLA (16.3% of all undergraduates).

Their influence extends beyond academics to sports and other extracurricular activities. All-American place-kicker John Lee, born in Seoul, is considered a leading professional prospect and is one of the keys to UCLA’s football success.

In higher education, the transformation is evident in what--and how--students choose to study. Allan Lichtenberg, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, has worked here 25 years, arriving before the first survey of ethnic Asian students in 1966 found that they composed less than 6% of the student body. “As a group, they are making very great contributions to academic life,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to teach bright students.”

Pedro Noguera, a sociology graduate student elected student body president in April--with the help of Korean-American campaign manager Sumi Cho--also praised the ethnic Asian contributions to campus life. But he noted that “some students say if they see too many Asians in a class, they are not going to take it because the (grading) curve will be too high.”

Michael Leung, 22, is head of the Chinese Student Assn., a 35-year-old organization on which many other Asian-oriented groups have been modeled since ethnic Asian enrollment began to rise in the early 1970s. He was born in Hong Kong and, like most of Berkeley’s ethnic Asian students, moved to the United States with his parents.


Leung’s high school friends in Morgan Hill, Calif., were of assorted races and backgrounds, but here, he said, “the majority of my friends are Asian-Chinese.” His major, electrical engineering and computer science, is so popular among ethnic Asian applicants that several with perfect 4.0 averages have been turned away, according to Asian-American studies associate professor Ling-chi Wang.

Leung, short and stocky with a shock of unruly hair and a quick smile, is confident that he will obtain a job in the electronics industry. “Initially, I want to get into design-research and then into management,” he said. “In design research, there is only so far you can go.”

If the drive to excel distinguishes Leung and his peers, it can also put them “between a rock and a hard place, because they’re not able to pursue their personal or intellectual interests,” said Jere Takahashi, a lecturer in Asian-American studies and coordinator of a counseling program for foreign-born students.

Trying to Be ‘Marketable’

Many Berkeley professors say the increase in ethnic Asians has accelerated students’ recent tendency to choose courses that will make them “marketable.” The pressure is not only self-imposed but also parental, and is magnified for Asians by the enormous importance of family ties.

“The parents have a limited perception of what the job market is out there,” Wang said. “So they think engineers or lawyers or doctors are what their children should be, when in fact not all of them would do well in such fields.”

Chan recalls counseling a bright, outgoing young woman “who would have been great in a field like public relations, but her parents were absolutely determined that she go into engineering. She was so unhappy that eventually she dropped out.”


Creates Tense Situation

The pursuit of excellence creates still another tension for ethnic Asians--between them and other students. Wang said there is “a growing sentiment on campus that Asian-Americans, because of their study habits, have created an awful lot of stiff competition in so many fields of study. Out of this kind of competition, you have jealousy.” He has heard of dormitory high jinks apparently aimed at disturbing the Asian students’ late-night studying.

Ethnic Asians jam the libraries and are far more likely to graduate in four years than students of other ethnic heritages, according to Wang and Chan. But faculty members greet the growth in ethnic Asian students with different degrees of enthusiasm.

“Those who teach writing are not happy with the influx. They despair over their inability to teach the students standard English,” Chan said. “But the faculty in engineering are enthused, because they stimulate a very great effort on the part of the other students and raise the whole level of academic performance.”

International Reputation

Much of the growth in ethnic Asian enrollment here is a tribute to Berkeley’s international reputation. Even peasants in remote parts of China have heard of this relatively inexpensive state university that ranks at the top of nearly every important field of modern research.

Berkeley and the system’s other campuses grew through generous state support and a guarantee that the top 12.5% of the graduating seniors, generally those with B averages or above, from each high school in the state would be admitted. As the system grew, so did competition to attend the prestigious Berkeley campus, and administrators have sought to limit undergraduate growth and achieve better ethnic balance.

Compared with their 5.3% of the state population in the 1980 census, ethnic Asians have much more than their share of high school students with B averages or better, while blacks and Latinos have less. Latinos, 19.2% of the state population, make up 7.1% of Berkeley undergraduates, and blacks, 7.7% of the state population, make up 5.1% this fall.


Trying to Close the Gap

The university has tried to close the gap with energetic recruiting and special admission procedures for under-represented minorities, but last year these efforts were followed by a three-point drop in the percentage of ethnic Asian freshmen at Berkeley, with a similar decline at UCLA. Applicants from a special pool of affirmative-action candidates with low family incomes and some academic difficulties were guaranteed places at Berkeley if they were black or Latino but were diverted to other campuses if they were ethnic Asian or white to create an ethnic balance.

An Asian-American task force headed by Alameda Superior Court Judge Ken Kawaichi and San Francisco Municipal Judge Lillian K. Sing denounced the changes as “highly irregular and irresponsible” and the result of “anti-Asian sentiment found among administrators.” The group charged that administrators were concerned “that there are ‘too many Asians on campus,’ that they use up too many resources and are not in need of help since they tend to do well.”

Helping the Others

University officials said they were trying to help under-represented minorities, not hurt Asians. The percentage of white freshmen at Berkeley had also declined, they noted, and other factors had affected the ethnic Asian numbers. Nonetheless, ethnic Asian freshmen percentages increased this fall, a change that Asian-American faculty and task-force members attribute to their protests. Bud Travers, assistant vice chancellor for undergraduate affairs, said the change was part of a natural year-to-year fluctuation, with no connection to university policy.

Barring a major change in U.S. immigration law, Chan said, the steady flow of ethnic Asian young people into California campuses is likely to continue, leading some faculty members to speculate on how these youths will change the leadership of the state and region.

Asian-American students and faculty note that they are in some ways as diverse as the Italians, Poles and Russians who comprised the last great surge of European immigrants to the United States. Koreans, Vietnamese and Chinese have very different languages, no matter what cultural traits they share.

Cantonese, Mandarin

Chinese students here are Cantonese speakers from Hong Kong or Mandarin and Fukienese speakers from Taiwan, each language group with its own club. Chalmers Johnson, a political science professor and Asia expert, noted a marked difference between the children of San Francisco’s old Chinese families and those “fresh off the boat--it reminds you of the German Jews versus the Polish Jews in the world of New York Judaism at the turn of the century.”


But college friendships often last a long time, determining careers and influencing attitudes toward politics, economics and leisure activities. Chan said one of her surveys found that, like Leung, “more than three-fifths of Asian students said their closest friendships were with other Asians. The friendships now tend to cut across Asian lines. There is a sort of pan-Asian thing going on.”

Chan said many students deny that discrimination by non-Asians leads them to band together. “They don’t like to admit that racism is forcing them to cluster,” she said. “They just say they are more comfortable this way.”

Takahashi, now 42, has seen ethnic Asians of his generation move into politics and business with discernible effect. They are moving into congressional and city council seats; they also hold key positions on legislative staffs and in important law firms. The much larger numbers of ethnic Asian Berkeley graduates soon to hit the job market “could make a significant difference,” he said.

He and others are watching to see whether the emerging students will alter the habits of the boardroom and factory as much as they have influenced the face of this university.