This week is Asian Pacific American Heritage Week. In the past, it has never been a huge deal to me. But this year, I’m kind of excited because Yul Kwon is giving the keynote speech tomorrow and he’s an excellent choice.
Kwon has an impressive resume. On the APAHW website, he is introduced as “philanthropist, lawyer, management consultant, entrepreneur, government official, and winner of Survivor: Cook Islands,” making him one of the most successful Asian-American public figures out there.
The Asian-American community, especially at pre-professional Penn, needs more encouragement from leaders like Kwon, particularly when pursuing careers in humanities- or social-science-related fields like nonprofit works, politics and arts and entertainment.
Kwon was invited for several reasons, according to College senior and APAHW Coordinating Chairwoman Joanna Wu. “He represents a successful individual who works in governmental affairs, has succeeded over the ‘glass ceiling’ … and is someone who can relate to issues that many other young Asian Americans face,” Wu wrote in an e-mail.
His presence on campus is timely, considering recent news about a public figure — Michelle Rhee — who resigned from her post as chancellor of Washington, D.C. schools. Reading the New York Times article on her departure, I was rather perturbed by one sentence, which read, “Replacing Ms. Rhee, who is Korean-American, with Ms. [Kaya] Henderson, who is black, is expected to ease racial tensions.”
I’m not an expert on the effectiveness of Rhee’s policies over the past three years or the extent of racial tensions in Washington. But I was bothered by the emphasis on race in the statement because it seems to diminish her achievements in her field. Moreover, it almost suggests that Asian Americans are unable to fit into certain positions because their cultural backgrounds prevent them from relating with their constituents. Maybe I’m reading too much into the article, but I find it discouraging.
Cultural and familial pressures are often cited as the biggest deterrents from Asian Americans entering certain industries. “Many young Asian Americans are children of immigrants, many of whom came over after 1965, when immigration reform allowed for specially trained and educated professionals to immigrate to America,” Wu wrote. “Perhaps due to this tradition, as well as the average levels of financial success and prestige associated with humanities/social sciences, these careers are not promoted or encouraged in families.”
Sociology, Education and Asian American Studies professor Grace Kao added, “It’s easy to do something if people stereotype you to be good at it by virtue of what you look like.”
But I wonder just how big of an obstacle blatant racism can be for Asian Americans pursuing careers in the humanities. As a fresh-faced reporter two years ago, I was dismissed by an interviewee because I had made a few technical errors in my notes: “Make sure the DP sends a native speaker to do the interview next time,” the person advised coolly. I can’t say I was scarred for life because I’m still writing now, but the incident gave good insight into potential challenges related to my race. But was that simply an isolated occurrence?
“Every job seeker faces diverse obstacles, and I’m not sure that the Asian American students I have worked with consistently face a special set of obstacles that are distinct from other students,” Career Services associate director Helen Cheung wrote in an e-mail. She added that Career Services works with diversity-recruiting programs and will host a multicultural internships panel in a few weeks.
Still, there are tangible, recurring race-related issues, and more could be done. So I’m looking forward to hearing Kwon speak tomorrow to see what he’ll say. Hopefully, he can inspire others to follow in his footsteps and not only become survivors of the system but leaders across racial lines.
Sarah Ryu is a College junior from Harrington Park, N.J. Her e-mail address is ryu@theDP.com. Ryu’s Clues appears on alternate Tuesdays.Comments powered by Disqus
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