When Alexandra and her friend Rachel, both graduates of Toronto’s Havergal College, an all-girls private school, were deciding which university to go to, they didn’t even bother considering the University of Toronto. “The only people from our school who went to U of T were Asian,” explains Alexandra, a second-year student who looks like a girl from an Aritzia billboard. “All the white kids,” she says, “go to Queen’s, Western and McGill.”
Alexandra eventually chose the University of Western Ontario. Her younger brother, now a high school senior deciding where he’d like to go, will head “either east, west or to McGill”—unusual academic options, but in keeping with what he wants from his university experience. “East would suit him because it’s chill, out west he could be a ski bum,” says Alexandra, who explains her little brother wants to study hard, but is also looking for a good time—which rules out U of T, a school with an academic reputation that can be a bit of a killjoy.
Or, as Alexandra puts it—she asked that her real name not be used in this article, and broached the topic of race at universities hesitantly—a “reputation of being Asian.”
Discussing the role that race plays in the self-selecting communities that more and more characterize university campuses makes many people uncomfortable. Still, an “Asian” school has come to mean one that is so academically focused that some students feel they can no longer compete or have fun. Indeed, Rachel, Alexandra and her brother belong to a growing cohort of student that’s eschewing some big-name schools over perceptions that they’re “too Asian.” It’s a term being used in some U.S. academic circles to describe a phenomenon that’s become such a cause for concern to university admissions officers and high school guidance counsellors that several elite universities to the south have faced scandals in recent years over limiting Asian applicants and keeping the numbers of white students artificially high.
Although university administrators here are loath to discuss the issue, students talk about it all the time. “Too Asian” is not about racism, say students like Alexandra: many white students simply believe that competing with Asians—both Asian Canadians and international students—requires a sacrifice of time and freedom they’re not willing to make. They complain that they can’t compete for spots in the best schools and can’t party as much as they’d like (too bad for them, most will say). Asian kids, meanwhile, say they are resented for taking the spots of white kids. “At graduation a Canadian—i.e. ‘white’—mother told me that I’m the reason her son didn’t get a space in university and that all the immigrants in the country are taking up university spots,” says Frankie Mao, a 22-year-old arts student at the University of British Columbia. “I knew it was wrong, being generalized in this category,” says Mao, “but f–k, I worked hard for it.”
That Asian students work harder is a fact born out by hard data. They tend to be strivers, high achievers and single-minded in their approach to university. Stephen Hsu, a physics prof at the University of Oregon who has written about the often subtle forms of discrimination faced by Asian-American university applicants, describes them as doing “disproportionately well—they tend to have high SAT scores, good grades in high school, and a lot of them really want to go to top universities.” In Canada, say Canadian high school guidance counsellors, that means the top-tier post-secondary institutions with international profiles specializing in math, science and business: U of T, UBC and the University of Waterloo. White students, by contrast, are more likely to choose universities and build their school lives around social interaction, athletics and self-actualization—and, yes, alcohol. When the two styles collide, the result is separation rather than integration.
The dilemma is this: Canadian institutions operate as pure meritocracies when it comes to admissions, and admirably so. Privately, however, many in the education community worry that universities risk becoming too skewed one way, changing campus life—a debate that’s been more or less out in the open in the U.S. for years but remains muted here. And that puts Canadian universities in a quandary. If they openly address the issue of race they expose themselves to criticisms that they are profiling and committing an injustice. If they don’t, Canada’s universities, far from the cultural mosaics they’re supposed to be—oases of dialogue, mutual understanding and diversity—risk becoming places of many solitudes, deserts of non-communication. It’s a tough question to have to think about.
Asian-Canadian students are far more likely to talk about and assert their ethnic identities than white students. “I’m Asian,” says 21-year-old Susie Su, a third-year student at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. “I do have traditional Asian parents. I feel the pressure of finding a good job and raising a good family.” That pressure helps shape more than just the way Su handles study and school assignments; it shapes the way she interacts with her colleagues. “If I feel like it’s going to be an event where it’s all white people, I probably wouldn’t want to go,” she says. “There’s a lot of just drinking. It’s not that I don’t like white people. But you tend to hang out with people of the same race.”
Catherine Costigan, a psychology assistant prof at the University of Victoria, says it’s unsurprising that Asian students are segregated from “mainstream” campus life. She cites studies that show Chinese youth are bullied more than their non-Asian peers. As a so-called “model minority,” they are more frequently targeted because of being “too smart” and “teachers’ pets.” To counter peer ostracism and resentment, Costigan says Chinese students reaffirm their ethnicity.
The value of education has been drilled into Asian students by their parents, likely for cultural and socio-economic reasons. “It’s often described that Asians are the new Jews,” says Jon Reider, director of college counselling at San Francisco University High School and a former Stanford University admissions officer. “That in the face of discrimination, what you do is you study. And there’s a long tradition in Chinese culture, for example, going back to Confucius, of social mobility based on merit.”
*This article was originally titled “‘Too Asian’?” For our response to the controversy it has generated, click here.
Demographics contribute to the high degree of academic success among Asian-Canadian students. “Our highly selective immigration process means that we get many highly educated parents, so they have similar aspirations for their children,” says Robert Sweet, a retired Lakehead University education prof who has studied the parenting styles of immigrants as they relate to education. Sweet’s latest study, “Post-high school pathways of immigrant youth,” released last month, found that more than 70 per cent of students in the Toronto District School Board who immigrated from East Asia went on to university, compared to 52 per cent of Europeans, the next highest group, and 12 per cent of Caribbean, the lowest. This is in contrast to English-speaking Toronto students born in Canada—of which just 42 per cent confirmed admission to university.
Diane Bondy, a recently retired Ottawa-area guidance counsellor, notes that by the end of her 20-year career, competition among some Asian parents had reached a fever pitch. “Asian parents do their homework and the students are going to U of T or they’re going to Queen’s,” says Bondy, who points out that “Asians get more support from their parents financially and academically.” She also observed that the focus on academics was often to the exclusion of social interaction. “The kids were getting 98 per cent but they didn’t have other skills,” she says. “Their parents would come in and write in the resumé letters that they were in clubs. But the kids weren’t able to do anything in those clubs because they were academically focused.”
Students can carry that narrow scope into university, where they risk alienating their more fun-loving peers. The division is perhaps most extreme at Waterloo, where students have dubbed the MC and DC buildings—the Mathematics & Computer Building and the William G. Davis Computer Research Centre, respectively—“mainland China” and “downtown China,” and where some students told Maclean’s they can go for days without speaking English. Writes one Waterloo mathematics graduate on an online forum: “I once had a tutorial session for the whole class where the TA got frustrated with speaking English and started giving the answer in Mandarin. A lot of the class understood his answer.”
“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.
The upshot is that race is defining Canadian university campuses in a way it did not 25 years ago. Diversity has enriched these schools, but it has also put them at risk of being increasingly fractured along ethnic lines. It’s a superficial form of multiculturalism that is expressed in the main through segregated, self-selecting, discrete communities. It would behoove the leadership of our universities to recognize these issues and take them seriously. And yet, that’s exactly what’s not happening. Indeed, discussions with Canada’s top university presidents reveal for the most part that they are in a state of denial.
“This is a non-issue,” wrote U of T president David Naylor in an email. “We’ve never had a student complain about this. In fact, this is a false stereotype, as we know that Asian students are fully engaged in extracurricular activities. So the whole concept is false.”
As Cheryl Misak, the U of T’s VP and provost, puts it: “We have a properly diverse mix, with no particular group extra prominent—we’re the rainbow nation and we’ve got every sort of student and everyone is on merit.” Waterloo president Feridun Hamdullahpur echoes a similar sentiment. “There is a great tendency in our society to learn more about other nations and other cultures,” he says. “Universities are the hotbed of these kind of activities. If you want to see more economic and political diversity, I think they star.”
These positions arguably represent a missed opportunity. Universities have the potential of establishing real cultural change. It makes sense that the head of the Canadian university with perhaps the highest number of Asian students is the most candid and the most concerned. Indeed, Stephen Toope has, since his arrival in 2006 as UBC president, made the issue central to his agenda—including outreach and newspaper op-ed pieces touting the importance of making the university campus a meeting place not only of diversity but also of dialogue.
Among Canadian universities, UBC is one of the few institutions that publishes the ethnic makeup of its student body. Toope says that the university’s Asian student population is not “widely out of whack with the community,” although the stats tell a slightly different story. According to a 2009 UBC report on direct undergraduate entrants, 43 per cent of its students self-identify as ethnically Chinese, Korean or Japanese, as compared to 38 per cent who self-identify as white. Although Vancouver is a richly diverse city, according to data from the 2006 census, just 21.5 per cent of its residents identify as a Chinese, Korean or Japanese visible minority.
Toope says drawing the various communities present on Canadian campuses into a common medium can be challenging. “Across Canada it isn’t always the case that you’re seeing as much engagement from the new communities as perhaps we should,” he says. Toope uses the experience of Turkish immigrants in Germany as a cautionary tale—“there are groups that never find a way to participate in the broader community.” Such circumstances persist precisely because the issue of race is not attacked head on. “I don’t want to pretend that just because you have people from different backgrounds they’re going to interact—they’re not,” Toope says. “We have to actually create mechanisms, programs and opportunities for people to interact. A university is one of the places that has the greatest capacity to work through demographic change.”
Toope points us in the right direction. It’s unfair to change the meritocratic entry system, so all universities can do—all they should do—is encourage groups to mingle. Though it’s true that universities—U of T and Waterloo included—do have diversity programs and policies for students, newer, fresher ways are needed to help pry the ethnic ghettos open so everyone hangs out together. Or at least they have the chance to. The white kids may not find it’s too Asian after all. Alexandra, who chose to go to Western for the party scene, found she “hated being away from home” and moved back to Toronto. In retrospect, she didn’t like the vibe. “Some people just want to drink 23 hours a day.” Alexandra says she still has friends at Western who live in an “all-blond house” and are “stick thin.” Rachel, Alexandra’s friend, says Western suits them—“they work hard, get good grades, then slap on their clubbing clothes.” But it didn’t suit Alexandra. She now studies at U of T.