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Le: Perceptions of success in Asian culture have presented challenges in post-graduation career planning

Phan Le, Op-Ed Contributor

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As my final undergraduate year is coming to a close, I am still uncertain about my post-graduation plans. Unlike the stereotypical high-achieving and driven Northwestern student, I’ve had no clue what I’m striving toward. For nearly my entire college experience, I’ve wandered every which way in my search for meaning, and more importantly, my career path. I say this because words like “passion,” “purpose,” and “meaning” were never part of my family’s vernacular. Rather, the discussion of career planning almost always began with the question, “How are you going to make money?” or even, “What kind of doctor do you want to be?”

During one conversation with another second-generation Vietnamese American, I once said that even though I had no post-grad plans at the moment, I would be content with a starting salary of $30,000. She seemed disgusted and said, “Girl, if I was making 30K, I would run.” She may have been joking, but I knew she believed herself with some amount of conviction. What struck me most about this interaction was how surprisingly identical it was to the values imparted onto us by our first-generation Vietnamese parents — those of choosing financial security over happiness. I thought we’d moved past them, embracing mainstream culture of individualism and personal passion. Yet, those values, my values, are still stigmatized and perpetuated by my own community.

People often take for granted a culture that values curiosity and self-discovery. We are told to be more than students, that we are expected to become changemakers. During the President’s Convocation in 2013, University President Morton Schapiro described this as the “second curriculum.” He said, “The first curriculum is all the courses you take. The second curriculum is everything that you do outside the classroom.” Ideas and moments such as Schapiro’s speech serve as artifacts, evidencing the culture we’re expected to live in — a culture that not everyone in the U.S. (or even the world) shares.

Career planning and general life navigation are part and parcel of this ”second curriculum,” yet they are things I’ve struggled with during my time at NU — in ways that are unique to the fact that I am a first-generation college student and second-generation Vietnamese American. I have noticed that many people in my family, just like many other members of the Southeast Asian diaspora, fail to see the value of going beyond the books once they arrive at college, leaving many of them struggling to find jobs that lead to both financial and political upward mobility after graduation. Although well-meaning, my parents and their repeated recommendations to become a doctor have failed to prepare me to pursue the life I want to live. My parents fail to see the opportunities in the U.S. because the only culture they have ever known was the one that existed decades ago on the other side of the world. As someone who faces cultural and language barriers with my parents, I often feel guilty and impotent that the path I choose to take is more ambiguous than a straight, definite path to a graduate or professional degree.

The persistence of the model minority myth and stereotypes of Asian success, along with having Asian friends from more privileged backgrounds, often makes me feel uncomfortable talking about how much I struggled psychologically with these expectations. At one point, I did not even think I would graduate in four years because I’d simply lost sense of my own identity. The culture I grew up in imparted a limited imagination of the opportunities within my reach. I grew up in a working class community with friends from low-income backgrounds, some of whom are first-generation college students themselves. My parents never attended high school, but rather worked as fishermen and farmers in Vietnam. Upon starting college, all these aspects of my identity suddenly debilitated me with self-doubt. Despite my past successes in overcoming failure, I felt like I had run into a brick wall. I was afraid that I was on the path of becoming the invisible statistic of Asian failure.

My parents want me to pursue medicine for no other reason than to provide for our family, which conflicts with my ability to preserve my individualism — a value that seems so inherent to our cohort, but I often feel it is being wrenched away from me as I straddle cultural lines. As people worried about how many employer interviews they could procure, I worried that I didn’t even have a specific career in mind and became guilted — by my parents and, more recently, my peers — into settling rather than searching.

Career planning for me looks very different from that of other NU students due to the fact that it was not easy to adopt this mindset of prioritizing my goals and ambitions over my family’s expectations. I couldn’t resolve this internal conflict at the drop of a hat or through a meeting with career services. By going rogue, I lose the understanding and support of my family, and my friends fail to empathize. But to have the independence I want, I pay the price of facing uncertainty alone.

Phan Le is a SESP senior. She can be contacted at If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.