From the Desk of the Council: The Model First-Generation College Student

One of the core missions of the Honors Diversity Council is to serve as a voice for marginalized communities on campus and foster a sense of belonging. This semester, they will be launching weekly blog posts that will discuss the experience of students with marginalized identities/and or how the University community can be a more inclusive environment for everyone. To kick off this series of blog posts, Xiangheng Li will share his personal story as a first-generation Asian student. 

Model minority, a term that I was not aware of until my junior year of high school. The term describes the expectation of Asian Americans as a group that is hard-working, self-reliant, smart, and living the American dream. I have always tried to live my life without the mental baggage of stereotypes. Yet, external expectations and perceptions often constrain my identity. Nevertheless, I am an academically driven student who also works as a Resident Assistant to cover tuition and personal expenses. Having many marks of a model minority checked, it is difficult for others to see my individuality. During my participation in the President’s Leadership Class last semester, I overheard a student commenting “Of course he’s an Asian,” when I asked a question pertaining to strength-based leadership style. Comments like these not only invalidated my individuality but also perpetuated stereotypes that often bias one’s judgment of outgroups. As humans, we are motivated to use as few cognitive resources in our judgment as possible. This general tendency prompts us to use stereotypes to process social information of people that don’t belong in our group. The mental shortcut of stereotypes can lead us astray and prevent us from recognizing the uniqueness that lies within humans. 

Another Asian stereotype assumes most Asian students have highly educated family members. But for many first-generation* Asian students, we often have to jump through more hoops to achieve the same results as others. The word “Asian” is a broad term that encompasses a wide range of communities. Often when people use the term “Asian,” the most salient group that comes to mind is the East Asian population. The strong associative link between Asians and East Asians leads our society to overlook other Asian populations that typically have a higher percentage of first-generation students. In Iowa, there’re growing populations of Vietnamese, Laotian, Burmese, and other Asian populations. These populations have a higher concentration of parents with only a high school diploma or less. Even though I don’t share the same ethnicity with them, the common experience of being a first-generation college student often strikes a similar tone. 

Not having any guidance in applying to college, I completely missed the December 1st priority scholarship deadline during my senior year of high school. As a result, I single-handedly dodged thousands worth of scholarship that would have granted me more financial freedom. Instead of serving as a resident assistant (It’s still a fun job), I would have joined more student organizations, such as OASIS or Asian American Student Union. Prior to coming here, I had never visited Iowa City or the campus. Navigating a new environment meant learning a new set of social languages and stepping out of my comfort zones. Positions like academic advisor or resident assistant were novel concepts to me. The plethora of majors offered here inundated my perceptions of college. However, throughout my last two years here, the support of mentors and social networks elevated my understanding of college and pushed me further along the path of self-discovery. They challenged me to take on more roles such as research assistant and continue the pursuit of getting the first college degree in the family!

For students who would like to learn more about Asian and First-generation college students on campus, please visit:

“First-generation college student” is defined as a student whose parent(s) did not complete a four-year college or university degree

About the author:

Xiangheng Li is a second-year student serving as the external committee chair for the Honors Diversity Council. He is majoring in economics, psychology, and math. On campus, Xiangheng works as a Resident Assistant, Research Assistant, and he serves as the Undergraduate Student Government first-generation constituency Senator.

Edited by: Alexis Carfrae, Honors Admin


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