Recent lawsuit against Harvard’s admissions process opens a conversation on the cultures and stereotypes surrounding Asian-Americans at UAHS

by Hallie Underwood & Maya Mattan, ’20 and Josie Stewart, ’21

When senior Olivia Oh first moved from South Korea to Upper Arlington in middle school, the
Korean Church of Columbus was her rock in a sea of unfamiliarity. Speaking Korean and celebrating traditional holidays, Sunday mornings provided Oh an escape from the challenges of being an immigrant in a majority-white school. After moving to the United States, Oh’s parents gave her the English name “Olivia,” hoping it would help her fit in.“ Often, parents of Asian students create these American names for their students in fear that they are going to get bullied,” Oh said. “They’re afraid their kids will be at a disadvantage because of their names.”

While some students retain both their Asian and American names, others did not have a choice.

“One of my friends was adopted, so she has a white last name,” sophomore Erin Huang said. “People are always confused by that. One time a teacher just walked up to her during class and asked, ‘Where are you from? Are you adopted or something?’”


Nov. 2 brought years of litigation against Harvard and weeks of trial to an uncertain end. Students for Fair Admissions, a group suing Harvard, accused the university of discriminatory admissions practices against Asian- Americans.

However, the case has much larger implications, and private colleges around the United States are paying close attention to the case. A ruling against Harvard could mean the end of affirmative action, a precedent that has been upheld in the Supreme Court for the last 40 years. The president of Students for Fair  Admissions and the man spearheading the lawsuit against Harvard is conservative activist Ed Blum. Blum previously worked as a case strategist for Abigail Fisher—a white applicant who felt she had been unfairly denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin—and helped bring her case to the Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court returned the case to lower courts for reconsideration, allowing affirmative action to stand. After the case, Blum said he “needed” Asian-American plaintiffs in order to end affirmative action.

In the recent lawsuit, Harvard University has denied all allegations of racial discrimination and civil rights violations in the application process. But evidence released from the trial shows Asian-Americans were consistently ranked lower on Harvard’s “personal” score compared to their Hispanic and Black counterparts. The lawsuit against Harvard has prompted a national discussion on race, merit and Asian-American identity.


Although many high school students are weighed down by college applications, Oh said she has an especially difficult time due to the expectations placed on her.

“Since everyone expects Asians to be smart, it is viewed as obvious for Asian students to apply and go to Ivy League schools,” Oh said. “It’s weird when Asian students go to lesser known schools, especially in-state like Ohio University, Bowling Green or Kent State.”

“Since everyone expects Asians to be smart, it is viewed as obvious for Asian students to apply and go to Ivy League schools,” Oh said.

The Harvard trials have made many Asian-Americans—like Oh and freshman Eric Liu—question whether they should mark themselves as Asian on their applications.

“My mother taught me as a young boy that colleges will treat me differently,” Liu said. “When they see
my name with a Chinese last name, they will think I’m from China with very poor English and not want me in their college.”

UA alum Christy Wu, who graduated this May, said she was not too worried about the effect her race would have on her admissions chances. Now a freshman at University of Pennsylvania on the premed track, Wu sees both sides of the Harvard lawsuit. While she does see racial diversity at her university, she does not see as much socioeconomic diversity.

“Most people come from a relatively similar income bracket,” Wu said.

But Wu also said that students who work hard should not have to worry that their race will hurt their admissions chances.

“Any student who works hard during high school and receives good academic results should be rewarded
accordingly,” Wu said. “There are other factors that affect achievement, such as extracurriculars and
extenuating circumstances. All should still be taken into account equally without a racial bias.”

Junior Wendy Shi, who was born in Wahun, China, agrees. “As an Asian-American, I kind of get hit with the short end of the stick,” Shi said. “I think affirmative action comes from well-meaning things, but when one race group like Hispanics and African-Americans benefits, other groups are hurt.”


According to a 2017 article published on Inside Higher Education, Asian-American students on average
have higher SAT scores and overperform in GPA, grades, and other standardized test scores to have the same chance of admissions to an elite college compared to their peers of other racial and ethnic backgrounds. Todd Pittinsky, a PhD graduate of Harvard University and researcher at Stony Brook University, found in his 2017 study “Learning From the Other Achievement Gap” that it is common for Asian families to instill strong educational values in their children.

According to Pittinsky, strong academic achievement comes with disadvantages. In his research, Pittinsky concluded that although Asian-Americans as a whole score higher on a global scale, they receive a lower score on well-being. A 2011 psychological study conducted by several university researchers, among them New York University professor Sumie Okazaki, found a “higher frequency of academic and family-related worries” in the Asian American community.


According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, 88 percent of students at Upper Arlington High School identify as white, 6 percent as Asian, and only 2 percent identify as African American or Hispanic. Although Asian-Americans are the largest racial minority at UAHS, some students say stereotypes persist. Sophomore Emma Wang, whose parents came from China, said she has experienced prejudiced comments.

“I’ve heard this many times: ‘I know this is stereotypical—but do you play violin? Do you play flute?’” Wang said. “Well yeah, I used to, but did they still need to ask?”

Sophomore Erin Huang said she feels students make assumptions about Asian-Americans before they get a chance to make a first impression.

“I’m from Taiwan, but everyone thinks that I’m Chinese,” Huang said. “I’m often asked, ‘Howmany languages do you speak? Oh my gosh, tell me a bad word in Chinese!’” Wang and Huang both said that if they stray from these stereotypes, other students take notice.

“I don’t know if people require you to act a certain way, but I think if you act differently, people find it kind of strange,” Wang said.

Junior Richard Kim, who is of Korean descent, said he noticed stereotyping but did not think much of it.

“There’s the typical stereotyping and North Korean jokes, but I don’t feel exceptionally different,” Kim said.


Huang said Asian-American stereotypes that focus around academics create a divide.“I’m in Honors Bio— not in chem. People always tell me I’m dumb because of that. But I’m not,” Huang said. “I’m in a normal honors class for a sophomore. I may not be the smartest person out there, and I shouldn’t have the expectations to be anyway.”

Wang shares similar interactions with students, especially since she is two years ahead in math and one year ahead in science.

“In many math classes, it’s like, ‘Look, there’s a white person.’” Wang said. “People expect there to be so many Asians. It happened when I walked in this year.”

The assumptions made by other students were reinforced in a voluntary Arlingtonian survey of 201 students in which 53 percent said they saw different educational standards for Asian Americans in Upper Arlington.

“It happens really often,” Huang said. “Whenever there’s a group project, people always say ‘Oh, let Erin do it. She’s smart.’ They don’t even know me, though. They see that I’m Asian and assume.”

“It happens really often,” Huang said. “Whenever there’s a group project, people always say ‘Oh, let Erin do it. She’s smart.’ They don’t even know me, though. They see that I’m Asian and assume.”

Some students who moved to UA from Asian countries find it hard to adapt socially.

Oh said she also finds exaggerated expectations for Asians to perform well. “People here expect Asians to be really nerdy, or super good at math or science. All APs,” Oh said. “That made me compare myself a lot, too, but I guess I have that pressure within me.”

Junior Wendy Shi, who was born in China and moved to the United States at age 9, said high expectations have always been a part of her life. She was told that the way to succeed was to get a high enough score on the Gaokao, the National College Entrance Examination given in China. Shi became accustomed to over 8 hours of school followed by at least 2 hours of homework, even in the first grade.

“School seemed to be all that mattered, but everyone was also a lot more diligent and saw the rigorous workload as the  normal,” Shi said.

Junior Paula Chindavong said she values education because her parents, who grew up in Laos, did not receive the high-quality education she has access to.

“My parents want me to work as hard as I can. They didn’t get as many opportunities as me when they were younger,” Chindavong said.

Oh said Asian-Americans are often pressured to overperform in order to compete with white students and job-seekers in the future.

“There’s this thought in the Asian community that the reason why Asians are so obsessed with their grades is because white people are not going to hire them if they are not excelling,” Oh said. “If
there is an Asian-American candidate and a white candidate with the same qualifications, they think—or rather, they know—that the white person is going to get the job.”


When Oh came to Upper Arlington, she faced the struggles of learning English and adjusting to the social culture at Jones Middle School.

“I’m not blaming anyone, but I wanted to fit in,” Oh said. “Because I couldn’t speak the language, there wasn’t much I could do. My peers tried, but it just didn’t work.”

Oh said Upper Arlington is rooted in long-lasting traditions that outsiders have difficulty adapting to, football games, dance club, holidays and sports among them. “People expect people to know about
[the traditions],” Oh said. “They don’t really go out and inform people about these traditions. I was naturally left out.”

Senior Kavya Pamulapati, who was born in Ohio to Indian parents, always noticed differences between herself and her peers.

“Lunchtime in the cafeteria was a constant reminder that I was different because I would bring Indian food to eat,” Pamulapati said.

Junior Halle Neff, a Filipino-American born in Upper Arlington, admits she felt like an outcast growing up in the American school system.

“When I used to talk about my culture and traditions, kids would look at me weird or be very confused about what I was saying,” Neff said. “I feel that I have been able to educate those around me about my culture, and they don’t really see it as weird anymore, most likely due to kids being able to grow up with me and understand more.”


Whether it’s marking one’s race on a test or hearing another joke about their name, some Asian-American students like Oh feel they can not completely “fit in” with Upper Arlington’s culture. “People outside of UA are left outside of the bubble,” Oh said. “If you don’t fit in the standard, you’re out. There are no ways for Asian-American families and students to express themselves fully outside of their homes and close groups of friends.”

“People outside of UA are left outside of the bubble,” Oh said. “If you don’t fit in the standard, you’re out. There are no ways for Asian-American families and students to express themselves fully outside of their homes and close groups of friends.”

Junior Susan Kim, who is Korean-American, said she found living in Upper Arlington to be a good experience, citing the diverse friendships she has built. Nevertheless, she hasn’t forgotten her roots.

“I’m glad that I’m a Korean- American and I love how different the two societies are,” Kim said.