With AAPI month coming to a close, we reflect on the long-held stereotypes that Asian Americans are naturally inclined toward S.T.E.M. fields. At UC Santa Barbara, we can see this pattern reflected as well. On average, Asian Americans make up 25% of UCSB students. But in some majors, such as microbiology, computer science, computer engineering, this number rises to above 40%. And among the majors with the highest percentage of Asian American students, many S.T.E.M. majors dominate the list. 

On average, Asian Americans make up 25% of UCSB students. Among the majors with the highest percentage of Asian American students, many S.T.E.M. majors such as microbiology, computer science, computer engineering, biochemistry, and molecular biology dominate the list. The size of the bubble represents the number of Asian American students in that major. The color of the bubble indicates the type of major (S.T.E.M./non-S.T.E.M./engineering). Purple represents S.T.E.M. majors, light blue represents engineering majors and coral represents humanities/non-S.T.E.M. majors. A small number of majors were removed for clarity. Internationals were not classified as Asian American. (Angelina Song / Daily Nexus)

The Asian population in the United States has been one of the fastest-growing populations for the past 40 years. According to Pew Research Center, “Nearly six-in-ten U.S.-born Asians (58%) were members of Generation Z in 2019, which means they were 22 or younger at the time.” 

This increase in the percentage of people of Asian descent has been largely brought about by immigration. In 1980, 18% of the 14 million immigrants were born in an Asian country. By 2019, not only had the number of immigrants jumped to 45 million, but roughly 31% of those immigrants came from an Asian country.

Overall, Asians in the U.S. tend to be a well-educated and high-earning group. According to Pew Research Center, more than half of all Asians aged 25 and older have bachelor’s degrees. Asians tend to have a higher median salary — $85,800 — which is almost $20,000 higher than all U.S. households. This can be attributed to working in S.T.E.M. fields, which generally pay better regardless of education level. In fact, despite making up 10% of the workforce, Asians make up 17% of all S.T.E.M. workers and have a higher representation in all high-paying S.T.E.M. clusters. 

Many foreign-born Asians have come over on H-1B visas, which are education-based visas.  In order to be selected for an H-1B visa, one must have a bachelor’s degree and a U.S. company to sponsor them. Notably, in 2019, 86.3% of all H-1B petitions filed were from applicants from China or India alone, and generally, Asian countries exhibit a strong presence in the applications. Since the H-1B program was started in 1990, roughly 2 million workers have immigrated to the U.S. to work as highly skilled professionals — many in fields such as engineering, technology and medicine. This immigration, in turn, has had demographic and cultural effects. 

First, the economic prosperity of H-1B workers, indicated by a median household income of $108,000, fosters a privileged community. Families with this sort of economic capital are already able to provide their children with better resources and opportunities.

Second, because many of these immigrants were able to achieve a high-income life through S.T.E.M.-based careers, they tend to instill in their children a strong appreciation for the opportunities and advantages that come with pursuing a job in a S.T.E.M. field. Whether through indirect influence from parents or mere observation, children of immigrant parents tend to see more benefits to choosing a career in S.T.E.M.

“I guess you could say it worked for them because studying computer science and studying technology allowed them to come to America and provide the life that they provided for my family,” Anirudh Iyer, a second-year computer science major, explained.

This partially explains the high number of Asian workers in the S.T.E.M. workforce. According to Pew Research Center, “Asian workers are 13% of those employed in STEM occupations, overrepresented compared with their 6% share of total employment across all occupations.” 

However, there are additional factors to consider.

Another contributing theory of the tendency for Asian Americans to pursue S.T.E.M. is that of success frames. Jennifer Lee, a Columbia University graduate and UC Irvine professor, explains a frame as “an analytical tool by which people observe, interpret, and make sense of their social life. Most plainly, frames are ways of understanding how the world works.” In interviews done by her and Min Zhou, a fellow researcher, she discovered that many of these immigrant parents, regardless of class or country of origin, often echoed the same ideas behind the way to achieve the best life for their children in America. 

Most families, regardless of ethnicity, want their children to have a good education and a good career. But for Asian Americans, the idea of a good education and success takes on a narrow and specific path. This path involves working hard in school, getting good grades (usually defined as A’s), going to a highly-ranked college and landing a financially stable job (in law, technology, medicine or similar fields). 

“They definitely believe that studying hard and going into these S.T.E.M. fields, which are typically higher paying relative to other fields, is the best way to guarantee success and financial security for their kids, which they obviously want,” Iyer said.

While very few Asian parents live up to the strict “Tiger Mom” stereotype and force their children to take on certain professions and majors, it would be naive to say that these widespread cultural values have not played an impact in the way Asian Americans are socialized in the United States.

These ideas are spread through Asian communities by social circles, word of mouth, and even online networks such as WeChat groups. This communal social circle becomes a resource by which many Asian parents base their decisions on. To achieve the standards set by their community, they will relocate to live in places with better schools, teach their children the belief that good grades are a result of hard work, and enroll their children in tutoring and additional education programs. 

Asian parents spend 15% of their income on extra education for their children, whereas the average American household spends merely 2%. This focus on academics and investment into education as the method to achieve a financially stable future is a widespread belief in the Asian American community.

“[My parents] knew that in order to come to America and to live what they thought to be a definitely better life, they would have to study hard and they would have to get the grades and do all this stuff in order to find success,” Iyer said.

However, while these beliefs may indeed pay off in capitalistic terms, they can inadvertently impose undue pressure on Asian children, potentially disregarding their unique aptitudes and aspirations for a more suitable path.

“You have these immigrant parents, who have not grown up here, and have not gone to school around here. The information they are working off of is very fragmentary and often based on hearsay. What are the top 10 schools anybody has heard of? If your community only recognizes these 10 schools and these four professions as prestigious ones, why would you encourage your kids to exploit prestige as well as economic stability?” erin Khuê Ninh, an associate professor in the Asian American studies department at UCSB explained.

Here, Ninh points out a discrepancy in the logic of the success frame. If the community views specific jobs and colleges as the only way to achieve success, and all others as failures, this ignores the thousands of other possibilities that could also lead to a successful future. 

Shiuan Cheng, a second-year physics major, said he would have liked to pursue photography as his career, but upon considering the financial investment of a degree, chose physics instead.

“I’d go into photography as my career, but it’s not as financially convenient as engineering is,” Cheng said.

Furthermore, it is important to note that Asian Americans are an extremely diverse group, hailing from many different countries around the globe — all with their own cultural values and beliefs toward education. Many Asian Americans do value and choose to pursue humanities. In fact, one of the most popular majors among Asian American students at UCSB is communication.

“I think you can’t really make a generalization about all Asians because each Asian culture differs so drastically. Like I’m half Chinese, half Japanese and just the differences between those two cultures is tremendous,” Olivia Jonokuchi, a second-year computer science major and founder of UCSB’s Girls Who Code said.

While Asian Americans make up a significant portion of S.T.E.M. students on campus, there is a lack of female Asian students in S.T.E.M. courses. 

“When I walk into my CS classes, I see maybe five or six girls. Most of my classes do consist of Asian males,” Iyer said. “I know that being in a room where no one looks like me would make me less comfortable, as opposed to being in a room where I know likely that people will share experiences.”

Jonokuchi, who saw this same discrepancy in her STEM courses, took the initiative to form additional safe spaces through Girls Who Code, which has a mission to “Build a community with other women and non-binary students in STEM.” 

Pew Research Institute reports that representation among women in S.T.E.M. occupations has failed to change since 2016. As of 2019, women only account for 25% of people working in computer occupations and only 15% in engineering occupations. Asian-American women in S.T.E.M. are recorded to have slightly higher averages than other women of color, but they still continue to trail behind white women throughout all fields.

Family pressures throughout Asian-American culture often play a significant role in shaping children’s aspirations. The “tight-knit” familial nature present in many households can, at times, prioritize the family unit over personal ambitions.

“I do feel a pressure to perform well academically, to get a good job and support my family,” Jonokuchi said. “My mom jokes that ‘When you make it big, you’ll buy me a Tesla!’ I’ve always wanted to give back to my family since they’ve done so much for me. Even if I weren’t Asian, I would do that.”

A version of this article appeared on p. 7 of the May 25, 2023 print edition of the Daily Nexus.