By Caroline Min (Bryn Mawr College); Yining (Elaine) Yan, intern at Cogita Education Initiatives, undergraduate student at Tufts University; and Marina Lee, EdM, former IECA Global Committee Chair (MA)

Asians make up one of the largest minority groups in schools and universities. Within this context, we bring what we hope will be helpful to educators, families, and students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year, Asian students found themselves in difficult situations never encountered before. The global crisis seems to reveal and worsen some issues that have long existed in the Asian and Asian American student community. In April and May, the Harvard Graduate School of Education “Let’s Talk!” Conference and the MGH Institute of Health Professions (IHP) collaboratively hosted a COVID-19 webinar series. The goal of this webinar series was to support the emotional well-being of Asian and Asian American students during this time of uncertainty. Professionals from various fields addressed relevant topics and provided specific guidance, two of which were centered around the anti-Asian racism and mental health issues evoked by the pandemic.

Anti-Asian discrimination is not new to the Asian community in the US, but the pandemic has, as stated in one of the webinars, “opened the floodgates” for racism. Terms such as “Wuhan virus” and “Chinese virus” circulate on the internet, encouraging the general public to act out their frustrations on Asian people, specifically of Chinese descent. Recent cases of hate crimes targeting Asians have been reported across the US, demonstrating the need to address an important question: How do we support Asian and Asian American students during this critical time of physical isolation and xenophobia? Following are some tips from the “Let’s Talk! X MGH” webinar series.

Acknowledge the History of Anti-Asian Racism in the US

Asian immigrants have experienced legal exclusions and severe discrimination since the first flow of Chinese immigration in the 1850s. During that time, Asian immigrants were described as “yellow peril” by the mainstream media and society. This stereotype was shifted in the 1950s. According to Dr. Justin Chen, members of the community started to be seen as “achieve[ing] a higher degree of socio-economic success than the population average.” However, the new label “model minority” did not free Asian Americans from stereotypical images, but rather migrate them from one pigeonhole to another.

This stereotype of “model minority” has remained with Asian students throughout the years. Yet, a recent article by NBC News suggested that the anti-Asian racism elevated by COVID-19 is changing the stereotype of Asian Americans from “model minority” back to “yellow peril.” Despite the fact that we are all victims of this pandemic, many believe that all Asians are to blame. In order to understand students’ struggles, it is essential for educators to recognize the root of anti-Asian discrimination in history and the developing aspects in the present. Students, on the other hand, should understand that their struggles are based on deep-rooted history rather than surfacing individual problems.

Recognize the Diverse Cultures and Their Uniqueness under the Umbrella Term “Asian”

While educators should be aware of the ongoing anti-Asian racism, it is also important to remember that students come from diverse cultures even though they all identify as Asians. During this pandemic, students from every culture are in unique stances, which should be researched and recognized when educators approach them. Chinese students and students who are racialized as Chinese might have very different needs. Understanding the cultural context and using empathy are recommended for IECs who hope to think from the student’s perspective and offer individualized solutions.

Educate Students of Other Ethnic Groups

Although guiding and supporting Asian students is a must, schools and IECs should also seek to educate students of other ethnicities. Dr. Taharee A. Jackson countered a quote from Andrew Yang’s speech on April 1, 2020, which states that “Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before.” As Dr. Jackson pointed out, we should be holding the perpetrators of racism accountable, not the victims, and educators should work on promoting racial equality in their schools or communities.

Encourage Asian Students to Share Their Stories

It can be emotionally difficult for young adults to share their experiences when they become victims. However, without these voices, the public would take much more time to realize the severity of anti-Asian racism and its traumatic impact on individuals. Other Asian students can also feel empowered and connected with one another through hearing their narratives.

Even without the rise of anti-Asian racism prompted by the onset of COVID-19, the global pandemic has posed other difficulties for Asian students. The mandatory government-imposed self-quarantine regulations led to months of staying indoors, communicating and completing work online from the comfort of our homes. But students who quarantined alone were put at an increased risk of suffering from loneliness, given that humans are naturally social beings that usually need to be of somewhat close physical proximity to others. Even those who did not quarantine alone were still susceptible to fear and stress, induced by irrational thoughts regarding the virus and the sudden loss of life’s predictability. Students who had to move out of campus mid-semester and return home may have also faced an array of challenges, including the sudden need to code-switch in the presence of family. Going back and forth between two cultures that have different stances, such as the disparities between the generally more conservative nature of Asia and the generally more liberal nature of the US, can create confusion, and students may feel the need to change accordingly each time they move.

Fortunately, there are many ways to help cope with negative thinking. It all starts with acknowledging our feelings without judgment. Some questions to ask ourselves include but are not limited to:

  • What are other possibilities in this situation?
  • What’s the likelihood?
  • Evidence for/against?
  • How does believing this serve you?
  • What would you tell someone else who is thinking about this?

Additionally, there are things we can do to calm down, including:

  • Deep breathing, slow and deliberate
  • Grounding exercises
  • Guided progressive relaxation exercises
  • Splashing water on face
  • Jumping jacks or taking a walk
  • Calling a trusted friend

It is important to seek professional help when needed, such as if you currently are or have been suffering from:

  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Recurrent panic attacks
  • Other issues related to either your body, school, or relationships

For teachers and educators, though much of the advice above can be helpful for non-Asian students, it’s important to recognize the cultural pressures of international students that are distinct from those of other students. Brushing their worries aside and minimizing them, even if said with good intentions, can be counterproductive and reinforce self-judgment. Rather, it is better to be curious and present, to listen rather than trying to fix. During this time, creating affinity groups for those who are struggling is also a good idea. Lastly, it is helpful to advocate to students that self-care is not selfish.

Marina Lee can be reached at [email protected]

SOURCE: US Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics (2019). Digest of Education Statistics — Table 306.20 [Data set].