Learning to thrive as a Japanese-American student at a PWI

How I gained confidence at a PWI

Identity and culture are extremely nuanced. I am learning more about my identity every day, and I don’t know if I’ll ever say, “I’ve got it now.” But what I do know is that the college journey for students of color can come with unexpected twists and turns. With the help of community, open dialogue, and faith, I gained confidence as a Japanese-American at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI). I hope to encourage other minority students to embrace their unique selves.

My story

Growing up in a bilingual, Japanese-American household in a predominantly White community, my cultural identity was never clearly defined. I was one of five students of color out of my graduating class of 150 in high school. I knew I was different, but I didn’t know any different.

While transitioning to a PWI in college wasn’t a huge culture shock, I still faced bumps in the road. I currently attend a small business-focused university in the Northeast. Not only am I a student of color at a PWI, but I am also a Christian at a secular university, and a young woman on a historically male-dominated campus. I’m used to being the odd one out, but I’ve learned to make that my strength.

Obstacles as a student of color

What does it mean to be the only non-White student in a crowded lecture hall? In short, it means doubt and impostor syndrome, the pressure to represent a whole race, and advocating for yourself because no one else understands. The beauty of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) experience is that it’s not one-size-fits-all. However, here are some common hurdles for students of color. 

Not having many leaders of color to look up to

Being a student of color at a predominantly White university means having few leaders on campus who look like you. As a senior in college, I can count on one hand how many faculty of color I’ve had as professors. But mine is not an isolated case—88.4% of the faculty at my university are White, about 10% are Black or Asian, and none are Hispanicfootnote 1. None. (This didn’t feel all that different from my high school, which had only one teacher of color at the time I graduated.)

More than meeting a diversity statistic, having instructors who look like you helps you feel seen, understood, and confident. In my early business courses, I was often the only Asian-American in the room, and sometimes the only BIPOC student. I hesitated to participate in class, fearing that others would assume I wasn’t intelligent because of my race or gender. At the same time, I wrestled with feeling like I had to speak out more than others because East Asians are often seen as quiet or shy. When I was taught by faculty of color, such as my Chinese marketing professor, I felt more comfortable speaking out and going to office hours for help.

It’s just as important—if not more—to have other students of color to look up to. Whether that’s your resident assistant, sorority big, or club president, having mentors who relate to you makes you feel like, “Yeah, I can achieve that, too.” On a campus where only 8% of the student body looks like me, these relationships are few and far between. But when I find one, it makes all the difference. Coming from a small town that was even more racially homogenous, I thought the way I looked, including my small stature, ruled me out as “unfit” for leadership. This is something that I’ve had to unlearn since being in college. Now, I’m happy to say that I’m on the executive board for two clubs on campus.

Assumptions and generalizations

A common experience for students of color—whether Black, Asian, Latinx, or other underrepresented groups—is that other students and faculty members make assumptions about you. Recently, I had someone tell me, “Y’all like to change your names,” referring to how many Asian immigrants adopt Anglicized names instead of their given names for ease of pronunciation and assimilation. I was born and raised in Massachusetts, with what some might consider to be an “American” name. I had no experience with this, so the jump to assume that I did felt off-putting. However, this example is nothing compared to what other students have experienced.

A person’s cultural identity can have many layers. Though lumping people into categories might be easier for our brains, it neglects the individuality of each ethnic and national culture. I rarely, if ever, describe myself as Asian. Sure, I check off the “Asian” box when filling out forms, but I prefer the term Japanese-American, as it celebrates the uniqueness of my ethnicity and growing up with both cultures.

How I went from surviving to thriving

1. Seeking out community support

Aware of the environment I was stepping into, I joined a mentorship program at my university that pairs first-year students of color with upperclassmen. The student I was matched with shared similar characteristics as me: Asian-American, female, creative, and from a faith background. Without her guidance, I wouldn’t have been able to see my own potential. As an accomplished student, fashion show director, and founder of the Philippine United Student Organization, she showed me that my culture isn’t something to hide, but to celebrate. She encouraged me to be who I am and to find my people, even at the cost of other relationships.

My advice? Join communities where you can meet students with similar backgrounds, such as ethnic and cultural organizations. Spark conversations with other BIPOC students. On my campus, many students of color have found support from men’s and women’s dialogue groups. During my first week on campus, I started a conversation with a student a few doors down from me. She happened to be Japanese and went to the same Japanese language school as I did for 10 years. We were able to support each other as we navigated a racially homogenous environment. 

2. Sharing my story

Last summer, I became a campus tour guide, partly because I’ve always wanted to, but partly to show prospective students that they don’t have to fit a certain mold to thrive at my college. They can be authentically themselves. 

During my tours, I got questions from other students from diverse backgrounds about navigating a PWI. I also got questions from Christians about finding spiritual community on campus. Above all, that’s what made that job meaningful—encouraging students who share the same fears as I did three years ago. As you cross paths with other students of color, remind them that you resonate with their experience and are here to support them. Your story could be the inspiration they need to keep moving.

It also doesn’t hurt to reach out to your professor or TA about these topics. Have a quick chat with them during syllabus week to share your concerns about being a student from a diverse racial background in the class and discuss ways they can support you. That way, you can go into the semester feeling confident. The same goes with sports teams, group projects, and other group environments.

3. Finding my faith

My personal source of strength is my Christian faith. Whenever I feel isolated or frustrated by microaggressions, I always run to prayer to feel comforted. Another safe space for me is my Christian small groups on campus. These groups welcome vulnerability and provide an open space to process all the challenges that come with navigating college. I attribute much of my success to my spiritual life. 

For you, this space could be a weekly counseling session or chat with family who might understand your sentiments more easily. Sometimes all we need is a listening ear. Whatever it is, find that source of strength, and come back to it whenever you need to. You aren’t meant to do this alone.

My advice for fellow students of color 

My first year on campus, I felt like the odd one out in every situation. I was convinced that people like me couldn’t thrive at my school. Slowly but surely, I learned more about my identity, and unlearned some things along the way. I'm still figuring out what role my ethnicity plays in my life, but today, I’m much more confident in myself than I was three years ago. I learned to carve my own path, and that’s what gave me power. 

If you are a student of color trying to navigate the racial landscape of a PWI, use my story as encouragement. Being a student of color comes with unique hurdles and bumps in the road. But remember: You deserve that degree just as much as anyone else. You will find your footing, and eventually, you’ll learn to thrive, too.

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footnote 1. This information was gathered on July 25, 2023. https://www.collegefactual.com/colleges/bentley-university/student-life/diversity/

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