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Culturally Competent Mental Health and Medical Practitioners
“The pressures of the model minority myth weigh heavily on the shoulders of Asians, whispering chillingly into our ears that we don’t need to access mental health resources, even though many of us desperately do. From cultural stigma to clinical distrust to racism to long wait times, getting the mental support we need is hard enough. We want clinicians that share our ethnic backgrounds and are culturally competent to foster greater empathy and comfort. We need help. Help.”
Artists’ Statement by Alana Chandler. Photo by Navid Abedzadeh. Design by Alana Chandler.
Read more on surveying MIT Asian/ American students on campus mental health resources at tinyurl.com/aaimentalhealth.
Asian Community Space
“My whole life, I have felt like I have needed to bend the space around me to fit my Asian identity, instead of space being made for me. I hope that MIT can create the space for us that we were rarely allowed.”
Artists’ Statement by Emily Huang. Art and design by Emily Huang.
Asian American and Ethnic Studies
“Growing up as an Asian American, I was surrounded by myths about our role in both American history and modern society. Learning about Asian Americans’ diverse histories, cultures, and languages empowers us and our MIT peers to dispel these myths and better understand how Asian Americans have changed, and will continue to change, the course of America.”
Artist’s Statement by Mulan Jiang. Art and design by Mulan Jiang.
Representation in MIT Senior Leaders, Faculty, and Staff
“What does it mean to be represented in a community when that same representation disappears when we talk about power? For the Asian community, that question takes form in pervasive ways as we journey through MIT. When our community is struck by national violence such as with the Atlanta Spa Shootings, who do we have to turn to besides ourselves? When we think about the MIT we want to forge such as with the MIT Values Committee, who do we have as a voice at the table? Who do we have so we are not forgotten? Again and again, we learn. Representation Matters.”
Artist’s Statement by Yu Jing Chen. Art by Yijun Yang and Sammi Cheung. Design by Yu Jing Chen.
“We are not all the same. We are not the same homogenous slice of pie, but instead hold a plethora of diverse stories and experiences that should be recognized in Institute data analysis and consequential decision making.”
Artists’ Statement by Audrey Cui. Art and design by Audrey Cui.
To MIT Senior Leaders,
The global COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically affected all of our lives in different ways. For our Asian American community, we have also had to manage the burden of a surge in anti-Asian violence and rhetoric, fearing for ourselves, our families, our friends, and our communities. Between March 2020 and December 2021, there were over 10,905 reported hate incidents in the United States against the Asian community. Given that Asian communities are one of the communities least likely to report hate incidents due to systemic barriers such as language or distrust as to whether reporting would result in any action, this number is startling. However, this is nothing new. Anti-Asian racism is littered throughout American history. We remember the 1871 Chinese massacre in Los Angeles, Bellingham riots of 1907, and surveillance of South Asian Americans post-9/11. Anti-Asian racism has been magnified by the settler American government throughout our country’s past, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to Alien Land Laws to World War II Japanese internment camps. The continuation of anti-Asian systemic violence has resulted in the deportations of Southeast Asian refugees, killings of Christian Hall and Angelo Quinto, 2021 Atlanta spa shootings, and recent murders of East Asian women in New York. These current attacks are symptoms of deeply entrenched anti-Asian racism that has long festered in the United States — a manifestation of the white supremacy that this nation relies on.
The Asian American community at MIT is one of the largest marginalized groups on campus, with over 21 Asian American cultural groups on campus. However, we still do not have enough culturally competent mental health professionals, a physical community space, or representation when it comes to faculty, staff, and senior-level administration. Additionally, the monolithic term “Asian American” fails to acknowledge our vastly different cultures and experiences, necessitating the disaggregation of data. Lastly, few classes are offered for Asian Americans to explore the histories and languages of our heritage, nor for the broader MIT community to learn about it. All of these steps are essential for MIT to provide a truly inclusive and supportive environment for Asian Americans.
Below, we as the MIT Asian American Initiative present five recommendations (in no particular order) for the Institute. Our student organization does not claim to be the sole voice for the Asian American student population. However, AAI’s members are all Asian American students who came together to write these recommendations based on our own experiences. We have spoken to and incorporated feedback from various Asian cultural student groups at MIT, as well as DEI representatives of many departmental and cultural student groups, to make this list as relevant and representative as possible. AAI has also collaborated with over seventy other Asian American student organizations from around the country, through the Intercollegiate Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Coalition (ICAC), to call on our respective universities to act on many of the following recommendations.
1. MIT must hire culturally competent mental health professionals for the Asian American population.
“Our community is affected not only by these recent attacks, but the long-term effects of racism and intergenerational trauma. Asian Americans are the least likely racial group to seek mental healthcare; hiring full-time staff members with specialization and experience with mental health issues affecting the Asian American community will better reach and care for our students.”
Based on a survey conducted in 2019 of over 1500 undergraduate students on MIT’s campus:
- 24% used counseling services in the past year.
- 71% often/very often felt overwhelmed by everything they had to do.
- 20% often/very often felt out of place or didn’t fit in on campus.
- 32% often/very often felt very sad.
- 18% often/very often felt so depressed it was difficult to function.
The COVID-19 pandemic paired with the continual stream of anti-Asian hate incidents have compounded stress and negatively impacted our mental health. To better understand the challenges that Asian Americans at MIT face, in December 2021, AAI sent out a survey to members of Asian American student organizations at MIT. In our survey, out of 87 responses, 81% of respondents rated their perceived level of support from MIT mental health resources to be a two or three on a five-point scale, where one indicates “no support” and five indicates “complete support.” A large majority of respondents indicated the importance of having therapists that share their ethnic background (70%) and are culturally competent (86%). Respondents noted that cultural familiarity increases therapists’ empathy and understanding of sources of mental health issues. Asian/Americans face unique struggles, often including but not limited to: family obligations based on cultural values; difficulty balancing various cultures; and facing discrimination and stereotypes such as the “model minority” myth, which assumes innate perfection and subservience from Asian/Americans.
32.4% of the current undergraduate student body identifies as Asian American, a proportion that rises to 41% when considering just the most recently admitted undergraduate class of 2025. Out of the 28 current care providers listed on MIT Mental Health & Counseling services’ website, fewer than 15% are representative of the Asian/American community (as of January 26, 2022). Out of nine current deans at Student Support Services, none appear to be Asian/American. Even with the few Asian therapists at MIT Mental Health, some survey respondents have experienced challenges with continuity of care.
This disparity in representation and the paucity of culturally competent care among MIT’s services means that Asian Americans students frequently receive inadequate mental health care, even if they do choose to seek it. Considering the difficult nature of the MIT undergraduate experience and the unique challenges Asian American students face, MIT should provide access to counseling and support services that address the specific mental health needs of the Asian American community. This effort should include a commitment to hiring multiple full-time clinicians in Student Mental Health and Counseling Services that reflect the diversity of the Asian American student body, as many Asian American students note feeling more comfortable seeking support from people with similar ethnic backgrounds.
Moreover, we believe in the importance of lowering the barrier of access to mental health services for all MIT students. Currently, an appointment with MIT Student Mental Health and Counseling requires phoning during business hours. This system frequently presents a logistical obstacle for beleaguered students deterring them from reaching out for help. We ask for the implementation of an online scheduling system in addition to the current dial-in system to make mental health services more accessible and lessen the stigma of addressing mental health that often exists in the Asian American community.
The importance of this representation extends beyond mental health to all fields of medical treatment as well. MIT Asian American students have expressed frustration with the lack of Asian American representation among MIT Medical practitioners. We believe that MIT Medical should increase Asian American representation within practitioners to create more comfortable medical experiences for Asian American students.
In all, we call on MIT to:
- Commit to hiring multiple full-time clinicians in Student Mental Health and Counseling Services that reflect the diversity of the Asian American student body
- Implement an online scheduling system for MIT Student Mental Health and Counseling
- Increase Asian American representation in MIT Medical as a whole
2. MIT must create a permanent, physical space for Asian American students and increase cultural representation.
A physical, permanent community space for Asian American students is crucial, especially as Asian Americans constitute a large percentage of MIT undergraduates– 32.4% to be exact. Since the Asian American label encompasses so many different cultures and identities, multitudes of Asian American cultural groups exist on campus. Several of these groups have expressed difficulty in finding and booking a space in which to hold events. Beyond serving as a primary location for Asian American community meetings, events, or socials, a physical space dedicated to Asian American students corporealizes and centers the common ground we find among ourselves, borne of shared experiences. Currently, there are few places that reflect and represent our realities, few that exist to make us feel like we as a community belong here at MIT; of those, most of them are intangible or do not wholly include all of us. This space would allow realization and expression of the synergistic Asian American culture at MIT and serve to provide physical proximity that lowers the barriers of community interaction and collaboration. Having a space on campus for Asian American students to feel like they have a community to belong and connect to is vital for their wellbeing.
Commitment 4 of MIT’s 5-year DEI Plan states that the Institute will “work with student and administrative leaders to identify and create opportunities and mechanisms for cultural student groups to convene, such as shared spaces and events, including signature annual events.” This point of the plan must be fulfilled in the form of a dedicated space for the Asian American community. To provide more perspectives and facilitate a more inclusive environment, this dedicated space could have specific books, literature, and other media specifically on the subject of Asian American stories, making them available and accessible to Asian American students. The LCC, BSU lounge, and AISES/NASA lounge are all concrete examples of student spaces and AAI is grateful for the hard work of these student groups in setting the precedent of getting these spaces on campus.
In line with the plan’s promise of signature annual events, we believe that MIT can do more to promote Asian cultural events. For example, MIT can help increase awareness about major holidays through community posts and student outreach. With the establishment of an Asian American community space, it will also be possible for Asian students and cultural clubs to gather and celebrate their heritage at MIT-sponsored cultural events.
More generally, MIT can also promote and support Asian-American cultures on campus by improving Asian food representation in campus dining halls. The current Asian-styled dishes are not very accurate or representative of these cultures. Ways to improve this are by having more chefs trained in Asian cuisine and by receiving more feedback from Asian American students on what dishes they would enjoy seeing in the dining halls.
In all, we call on MIT to:
- Dedicate a physical, permanent community space for Asian American students and groups.
- Promote greater representation of Asian and Asian American literature, cultural celebrations, and food both within the space and beyond.
3. MIT must offer courses in Asian American studies, expand the level of Asian language classes, and install ethnic studies programs.
“A core foundation of anti-Asian violence is ignorance, which contributes to the inaccurate and simplistic perceptions of Asian communities as either ‘perpetual foreigners’ or ‘the model minority.’ Asian American students deserve to learn about their communities’ diverse histories of immigration, activism, and allyship from Asian American faculty at their institutions. These histories benefit everyone, expanding the diversity of narratives and sensitizing students to the existence of ingrained systems of oppression against their peers. By creating space for Asian American studies, MIT commits to empowering the next generation through a more honest understanding of their identity and America.”
We believe it is essential that MIT students have the opportunity to take a variety of ethnic studies, language, and cultural immersion courses so that our university can matriculate students with the skills and cultural sensitivity to understand people of different backgrounds. Furthermore, these are not new demands. The global language programs have had high student demand and have been requesting more funding for many years, yet recently, MIT restructured GSL.
Therefore, we call upon MIT to dedicate more resources to SHASS for further promotion and expansion of the ethnic studies and global language programs including hiring more faculty, offering more courses, and formalizing the programs. During Fall 2021 and Spring 2022, MIT offered zero Asian American studies classes. The dearth of curricula pertinent to the Asian American experience suggests that forming communities around Asian American perspectives is not a priority at MIT. The option of cross-registering serves as a bandage for the lack of diversity in our SHASS catalog; we cannot rely on Harvard and Wellesley to reflect our MIT community. Beyond the logistical barriers of traveling between campuses that dissuade or prohibit students from cross-registration, the lack of Asian American academia at MIT hinders the formation and sustenance of a community equipped with knowledge and history that can facilitate discussion of themselves, their identities, and the potential intersectionality with their disciplines.
We ask for the following:
- Create an Ethnic Studies program that can offer a concentration by 2024. Offer an Ethnic Studies minor and major as a Course 21 Interdisciplinary Minor/Major by 2026.
- Offer a minimum of five Asian American studies classes per term.
- Offer a larger variety of Asian languages beyond Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.
- Offer higher-level courses in the languages that are already part of the established programming. MIT only offers only up to third-year proficiency in many languages programs, which is inadequate for effective business use and insufficient for those who wish to converse fluently with community and/or family members in a particular language.
4. MIT must hire more Asian American faculty, staff, and senior-level administrators.
In Spring 2023, MIT’s Senior Leadership Organizational Chart, which includes 32 people in total, showed only 2 senior leaders of Asian or Asian American descent.These statistics fail to effectively address the diversity of the Asian and Asian American student community at MIT.
Representation and cultural awareness matters, from senior leaders’ decision-making at the highest level to the everyday interactions that staff and faculty have with students. In senior leadership, diverse Asian perspectives bring to the table not only cultural awareness, but also lived experience. At the head of classrooms and research labs, diverse Asian representation means important role models and mentors for students. Moreover, a lack of diverse representation leads to perpetuated invisibility and decisions that unintentionally harm marginalized communities.
For instance, community members, in the spring of 2022, raised the issue that the MIT Values Statement Committee included no Asian or Asian American faculty representation. Additionally, the Context and Statement video released in October 2021 does not feature any Asian voices. The question of what values should guide MIT is a question that will impact the MIT community for years to come. The lack of diverse representation in this large-scale effort is dissonant and jarring, yet sadly not surprising. It speaks to the invisibility Asian community members feel on this campus and the struggles that Asian communities face in America due to the legacies of exclusionary and discriminatory public policy. Although Asian Americans as an aggregated whole are a large presence on campus—over 30 percent of undergraduate students as of 2023—our history and position in America still lead to invisibility and exclusion.
Asian Americans are often perceived and portrayed in the media as unfit for leadership positions, a problem that only exacerbates the issues caused by an actual lack of representation and consideration by leadership. For people whose ethnicities are underrepresented even within the umbrella of “Asian American”—like many Southeast Asians in higher education, for instance—this is an even larger issue. Furthermore, let us not forget that diversity in representation refers not only to ethnic diversity; notably, Asian women were found to be “significantly underrepresented” in the MIT faculty, according to the 2004 Faculty Policy Committee Statement on Representation of Minorities on the Faculty and in the Graduate Student Body. No MIT report has addressed the issue since.
As for Asians or Asian Americans that do find themselves in leadership roles at MIT, we’ve seen the hidden labor that leaders of Asian descent in the Institute take on beyond their formal roles in order to support our Asian communities. In times of national tragedy, such as the Atlanta Spa Shootings in 2021, administration put emotional burden on Asian faculty and students to plan and execute Institutional response. In times meant for celebration, such as Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the same Asian faculty and students find themselves continuously called upon to take on the work of planning and organizing events meant to be led by the Institute. And in unfortunate but everyday instances—when incidents of race-based violence on campus occur, when the Institute fails to meet student demand for course offerings in Asian American studies, or when Asian students must search for faculty who can connect with their lived experience—Asian faculty are asked to shoulder the emotional burden of responding and supporting. This invisible work is seldom recognized and sometimes even erased; yet in many ways, it detracts and takes time from their research, work, and scholarly pursuits, making it more difficult to attain leadership roles.
It is important to have non-tokenizing representation in the upper-level management of the Institute so that the needs of the diverse MIT Asian American community are accurately voiced and accounted for. We ask that MIT recruit, retain, and promote Asian American-identifying staff, faculty, and administrators of diverse ethnic backgrounds. Furthermore, it is critical to note that these issues are not unique to Asian Americans. These are issues that affect all marginalized and underrepresented people in academia, including other people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and those at the intersection of marginalized identities. More Asian representation in senior leadership creates a more diverse Institute, which benefits the entire MIT community. MIT must prioritize diverse voices and perspectives in roles of decision-making power in order to best serve its community and the world.
5. MIT must disaggregate data of Asian American enrollment, graduation, and admissions by ethnicity.
“We must recognize that factors such as socioeconomic background, political power, and immigration status are not homogeneous within the Asian American communities. Our demographic is far from a monolith. By aggregating many populations into one general ‘Asian American’ category, institutions of higher education ignore the wide range of identities, struggles, and needs of over fifty different ethnic groups/nationalities and hundreds of languages.”
MIT’s IR Diversity Dashboard does not break down Asian American groups. Additionally, the Spring 2021 draft of the Strategic Action Plan for DEI makes no mention of Asian Americans in its 15 pages. We call for data disaggregation to show how MIT serves different Asian American communities as they come into and journey through MIT.
Data disaggregation in higher education has been a call by many Asian American student activists for over 10 years. Data disaggregation can shed light on patterns or trends in factors that deeply affect a student’s journey through MIT in different ways, including performance, sense of belonging, development, and more, within different pockets of the incredibly diverse Asian American community. This diversity presents itself through socioeconomic background, strength of cultural communities, and educational experience, to name a few. For example, according to the Pew Research Center, Asian Americans exhibit the largest income gap of any racial group. Particular attention must be given to refugee communities and Southeast Asian Americans, who are traditionally underrepresented in higher education institutions compared to the national population. MIT, like many other universities across the nation, such as the University of California system, will most likely find that they do not enroll and serve the entire diversity of Asian America. Showing how these populations enter and journey through the institution can help MIT better understand the diverse needs of the Asian American community on campus. Without this nuanced understanding, the needs of different Asian American communities will remain invisible and, academically, culturally, and mentally, these students cannot be fairly and adequately served. Disaggregating data is a necessary first step for MIT to recognize and begin to address the different needs of different Asian American communities.
We ask for the following:
- Disaggregate data of Asian American enrollment, graduation, and admissions by ethnicity, in a way that preserves the confidentiality of individuals belonging to the smallest demographics.
- Release a report on patterns or trends in the performance, sense of belonging, and development in the Asian American community specific to different ethnicities.
Finally, we would be remiss not to credit the BSU for their 2015 recommendations for inspiration and paving the way for us. We would like to thank the countless staff, faculty, and alumni who made time to talk to us. Additionally, we would like to thank the following organizations for their time and input: Chinese Students Club (CSC), South Asian Association of Students (SAAS), Asian American Association (AAA), Vietnamese Students Association (VSA), Filipino Students Association (FSA), MITeri, UA Diversity Council, Latino Cultural Center (LCC), Black Student Union (BSU), and American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES).
MIT AAI looks forward to continuing conversations with the MIT administration and hope to see these recommendations come to life.
MIT Asian American Initiative
2022 (last updated Fall 2023)