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Asian-Americans : Emphasis on Education Paying Off

December 19, 1985|LYNN SMITH and BILL BILLITER | Times Staff Writers

Only through education can a person become a true human being.

--Confucian proverb

At 5:30 on a recent Friday evening, Timothy (Tung) Anh Pham was still bending over his biology notes in a third-floor cubicle of the library at the University of California, Irvine. Under the silent fluorescent tubes, he was oblivious to the students outside who were laughing and straggling off campus toward the promise of a moonlighted autumn night.

Their sort of fun can wait, said Pham, 21, an earnest young Vietnamese student who wants to become a doctor. "A student is like any artist. You have to perform well. I am practicing for a performance," Pham said, referring to his finals a month away.

He knows that in order to convince medical school officials that he is "well rounded" as well as bright, he must volunteer for research and tutoring while continuing to earn more A's than B's. But the volunteer work had put him behind in his study schedule, so he began spending Friday evenings in the library, he said.

125% Increase in 10 Years

Pham's matter-of-fact discipline and ambition are the sort that educators say accounts for the phenomenal, and seemingly sudden, academic presence of Asian-Americans and immigrant Asians throughout the country.

As the Asian population has mushroomed 125% in the last 10 years, Asian students--despite language and cultural barriers--have been swelling the nation's gifted student programs, high school honor rolls and the ranks of the most selective colleges and universities in the nation.

Asians are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States, according to the 1980 Census. And they are the most likely to attain higher education. The U.S. Department of Education says that 35% of all adult Asian-Americans have earned college degrees--a rate more than double that of any other ethnic group, including whites.

34% of Freshman Class

Asians account for 22% of the student body at UC Berkeley, 21% at UCLA and 10% at Harvard University. At UC Irvine, in the heart of once-homogeneous white, suburban Orange County, Asians this school year make up 34% of the freshman class--the highest of any university in the United States outside of Hawaii--even though Asians account for only 5% of the county's 2.2 million residents.

Asian-American high school graduates are the most likely of all ethnic groups and twice as likely as whites to gain entry to the UC system, which is mandated to admit the top 12.5% of the state's high school graduates on a merit system based on test scores and grade point averages, according to Bill Burson, consultant with the state Department of Education.

The College Board has collected data by ethnic group for 10 years, and in that time Asian-Americans have consistently scored higher than any other group in the math portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Tests and second only to whites in the verbal portion. In the math score this year, Asian-Americans averaged 518 on the SATs, compared with 491 for Anglos, 426 for Latinos and 376 for blacks. In the verbal score, Anglos averaged 449, Asians 404, Latinos 382 and blacks 346.

In Garden Grove in Orange County--which has one of the world's largest Vietnamese refugee communities--Asians in the city's unified school district are among the highest achievers, even though many of them only recently learned to speak English. Supt. Ed Dundon said 85% of last spring's valedictorians in district high schools were Asian, and most were recent immigrants.

Despite these impressive statistics, the drive to excel has been a mixed blessing for many Asian-Americans. In many instances, it has led to high-paying careers in medicine, law and other professions. But it has also meant increased stress on children and their families. For some troubled lesser achievers, suicide has seemed the only option. And for the majority of Asian students there is a sometimes subtle, sometimes overt resentment from other minorities as well as whites.

"I believe what is happening now to Asian students is like what happened to Jewish students in the '20s and '30s. . .," said Sucheng Chan, a Chinese-American who is provost and a professor of history at UC Santa Cruz. "In the case of both Jewish and Asian students, the fear comes not because they're perceived as inferior, but because they're perceived as too smart, too successful. (The fear is) that they might take over."

UC Irvine Chancellor Jack Peltason told a news conference last year that he received some angry phone calls from Orange County residents who accused the university of favoring Asian students through "affirmative action." But Peltason noted that the reverse actually is true: Asians are among the few minority groups that do not qualify for affirmative action because they already are overrepresented in the UC system in proportion to their percent of the state's population.

Accusation of Quotas

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